Tuesday, October 4, 2011


We are looking for ways to expand the number of people who receive our blog. So, we recently added a number of Scottish organizations and St. Andrew’s Societies around the world. (You can easily opt-out if not interested.) We currently have over 900 on our list and will happily add anyone interested. Just send us a name and email address.

The Scottish American History Club has several goals, first we want to tell the story of our history and its people and second, we want to encourage others to become bloggers. It’s relatively simple and inexpensive to set-up a blog and the stories are endless. In America, I can’t think of a state that doesn’t have a strong Scottish influence.

Our blog is mostly concerned with the Chicago area and the Illinois Saint Andrew Society. Our Society began in 1845 and so we have a long history of people and events. The Society also owns a health care facility called the Scottish Home in North Riverside, Illinois (USA). Thus, many of our stories are about the Home which is 111 years old. However, we do write of other things like today’s story.

On November 2, 2011, The Bank of England will introduce a new 50 pound bank note. For the first time the banknote will have two portraits. One is of James Watt and the other is his business partner Matthew Boulton (pronounced Boulten). The present fifty pound note featuring Sir John Houblon will be gradually withdrawn.

James Watt was born in Greenock, Scotland on January 19, 1736. He began his working career learning the trade of mathematical-instrument making in London. Later, when he returned to Glasgow, he set up a work shop at Glasgow University where he repaired and calibrated instruments. However, he soon became interested in the steam engine which at the time was just being used to pump water from mines. As an engineer, Watt worked on the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Caledonian Canal. He also worked to improve harbors and the deepening of rivers in Scotland like the Forth and Clyde. One of his inventions was an attachment to telescopes for the measuring of distances.

The term by which we measure electricity is named for him and he also coined the word horsepower. Watt charged his customers an extra premium for using his engine. "Watt calculated that a horse exerted a pull of 180 lbs; therefore, when he made a machine, he described its power in relation to a horse: a 20 horse-power engine, for instance. Watt worked out how much each company saved by using his machine rather than a team of horses. The company then had to pay him one third of that figure every year for the next twenty-five years.” The government gave Watt and Boulton a monopoly on the construction of steam engines. There was never any competition.

James Watt didn’t invent the steam engine but like so many other Scottish inventors he improved on the idea. (McCormick didn’t invent the reaper, he just made it work better, especially when the grain was wet.) The first patent issued to James Watt was in 1769 and had to do with a separate condensing chamber which greatly increased the power of the engine. He also made it a rotary engine.

Arthur Herman in his book How the Scots Invented The Modern World writes about the influence of these two men, Watt and Boulton. He wrote, “They made the modern factory, and the factory system, possible. They also altered the way people saw the world. That became clear when James Boswell visited their Soho works outside Birmingham, and Boulton showed him around, uttering the famous phase: ‘I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have: power.’”

James Watt died in Heathfield, England, August 19, 1819. “By the time he died, he’d changed history and was the most honored engineer who had ever lived.”

Wayne Rethford
President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society

The next meeting of the Scottish American History Club will be November 7, 2011. We will have a guest speaker on the subject of the Titanic. More information to follow. No December meeting. Visit our web site at chicagoscots.net.

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