James Watt’s Schooling

James Watt was one of the greatest practical scientists the world has seen, his discoveries including the invention of the separate condenser for steam engines (which enabled significant parts of the Industrial Revolution). ‘Watts’ in electricity are named after him.

So, what sort of formal schooling did this eminent scientist and inventor have? 13 years (the typical kindergarten-primary-secondary amount nowadays)? 17 years (add an undergraduate degree)? 21 years (for a Ph.D.)?

Watt was largely homeschooled. From Andrew Carnegie’s James Watt (1905):

“[James] was so delicate [in health] that regular attendance at school was impossible. The greater part of his school years he was confined to his room. [… His mother] taught him to read. […] He was rated as a backward scholar at school, and his education was considered very much neglected. [… His father] taught him writing and arithmetic, but also provided a set of small tools for him in the shop among the workmen.” (pp. 10-13)

At 17, Watt aimed to become a mathematical instrument maker, and so began working for an optician (of sorts) in Glasgow. At the same time, a brother of a school friend, Professor John Anderson, gave Watt unrestricted access to his own library.

He then left Glasgow, moving to London, where eventually he secured apprenticeship with a mathematical instrument maker, at which he spent a year’s work. After becoming ill, he returned home to recuperate. “His native air, best medicine of all for the invalid exile, soon restored his health, and” at 20 “to Glasgow he then went, in pursuance of his plan of life early laid down, to begin business on his own account.” (p. 35) After procuring work on astronomical instruments from the university, he setup shop in a room provided by the university (because a local guild would not allow him to work without 7 years of apprenticeship – the university was exempt from this). He was able to meet various eminent scientists at the university.

A couple themes:

1. Little formal schooling (much less the 21 years most Ph.D.’s now receive). See here for comparison to eminent English men in science in the late 19th century (Watt was active in the 18th and early 19th centuries).

2. An ‘amateur’ scientist. Watt had an autonomous income. See here for more on the amateur scientist model. While still being an ‘insider’ in terms of his ability to meet eminent scientists, he was an outsider in certain respects (this is similar to Faraday‘s early work, for example). See the end of this post for more on the insider-outsider idea.

One thing I liked about the section of Carnegie’s book where this biographical information comes from are passages like the following, describing the tenor of Watt’s early years:

“[V]isits to the same kind uncle “on the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond,” where the summer months were spent, gave the youth his happiest days. Indefatigable in habits of observation and research, and devoted to the lonely hills, he extended his knowledge by long excursions, adding to his botanical and mineral treasures. Freely entering the cottages of the people, he spent hours learning their traditions, superstitions, ballads, and all the Celtic lore. He loved nature in her wildest moods, and was a true child of the mist, brimful of poetry and romance, which he was ever ready to shower upon his friends.” (p. 16)

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