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Dr Malcolm Dick OBE, addressing attendees at the opening of the exhibition

A new exhibition on James Watt has opened at the Library of Birmingham.

‘Watt in the World - The life and legacy of James Watt 1736-1819’ forms the centrepiece of the Lunar Society’s James Watt Bicentenary programme and will run from Friday 12th July to Saturday 2nd November 2019.

Featuring more than 100 internationally important archival and museum objects, the exhibition includes paintings, works on paper, furniture, silver, scientific instruments, personal items, notebooks, letters and Watt-related memorabilia.

Highlights include James Watt’s notebooks that detail his experiments, personal correspondence with friends and family, silverware by Matthew Boulton, a letter copy press designed by Watt; and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s 1812 portrait of the great engineer.

The exhibition preview will be accompanied by the Birmingham launch of a major new book - ‘The Power to Change the World: James Watt - a life in 50 objects’ - edited by the University of Birmingham’s Dr Malcolm Dick OBE, a guest curator at the Library of Birmingham, and Dr Kate Croft and published by History West Midlands.

Born in Greenock in Scotland in 1736, James Watt moved to Birmingham in 1774 to enter into partnership with Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) to manufacture an improved steam engine that incorporated his innovation of the separate condenser. The Boulton & Watt engine was to become, quite literally, one of the drivers of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and around the world.

Whilst best known for his improvements to the steam engine, Watt was a man of many other talents – scientific instrument maker, civil engineer, chemist, inventor and member of the renowned Lunar Society.

In addition to the exhibition, other Bicentenary activities taking place this year include talks, tours, films, concerts, art installations and family activities; a James Watt city heritage trail; a schools project; a community engagement programme focussed on Handsworth (where Watt lived for 30 years until his death in 1819) and a conference hosted by the University of Birmingham.

Rt Hon Jacqui Smith, Chair of the Lunar Society, said: “The Lunar Society is delighted to be leading the James Watt Bicentenary programme to commemorate the achievements of the great engineer.

The Watt in the World exhibition will tell the story of Watt’s life and achievements and perhaps also inspire future generations of Brummies to follow in his footsteps.’

Cllr Brigid Jones, deputy leader of Birmingham City Council, said: “Birmingham is world-famous for being a city of innovation. 200 years ago, newcomers like James Watt came to our city because of its reputation for being creative, industrious and welcoming to new people and ideas. Those core characteristics could equally describe Birmingham today. The James Watt archive at the Library of Birmingham is an historic collection of world importance. Thanks to the hard work of partners including the Lunar Society, the University of Birmingham and the Birmingham Museums Trust, it is a great opportunity to see the story of James Watt being brought to life.”

Dr Malcolm Dick OBE, Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham and Director of the Centre for West Midlands History said “Exhibitions like this are crucial to help us understand our region’s rich human and material history. It has been a pleasure working with many talented and committed people to put together an illuminating set of displays, including how Watt has been portrayed in popular culture. The exhibition takes visitors on various journeys to understand how Watt and his achievements were created, shaped and represented locally, nationally and internationally.”

The Lunar Society is working with a host of partners to deliver the Bicentenary project, including History West Midlands, Birmingham City Council, The Library of Birmingham, Birmingham Museums Trust, the University of Birmingham, Birmingham Assay Office, the Jewellery Quarter Development Trust, Handsworth Parish Church, St Paul’s Church and Legacy WM.

The Bicentenary programme has been supported by grants from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the W A Cadbury Charitable Trust, History West Midlands, the Rowlands Trust, the Feeney Trust, the Limoges Trust, the Edward Cadbury Trust. the Grimmitt Trust and the Jewellery Quarter Development Trust.

For more details about the Watt Bicentenary programme visit here. 

For more information or interviews, please contact: Hasan Salim Patel, Communications Manager (Arts, Law and Social Sciences) on +44 (0) 121 415 8134 or contact the press office out of hours on +44 (0) 7789 921 165.

About James Watt

Born in Greenock in Scotland in 1736, Watt moved to Birmingham in 1774 to enter into partnership with Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) to manufacture an improved steam engine that incorporated his innovation of the separate condenser. The Boulton & Watt steam engine was fundamental to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in both Britain and the rest of the world.

As part of the development of the steam engine Watt developed the concept of horsepower and invented the 'sun and planet' mechanism to enable rotary power. As well as his steam engine work Watt was a member of the famous Lunar Society. In 1780 he also invented the first reliable document copier.

The firm of Boulton & Watt was highly successful and Watt became a wealthy man. He built himself a new house, Heathfield Hall in Handsworth (demolished in 1927), and also acquired Doldowlod, a country estate in Radnorshire in Wales. Following his retirement in 1800 he continued to develop new inventions in his workshop at Heathfield. These included a machine that could produce three dimensional copies of sculpture.

Watt died at Heathfield in 1819 aged 83.

Where to find James Watt in Birmingham: Birmingham is home to a wealth of heritage related to James Watt. The Library of Birmingham holds the ‘Archives of Soho’ (four major collections relating to the business activities and personal lives of James Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton), whilst Birmingham Museums Trust’s collections include a large quantity of material acquired at Sotheby’s James Watt Sale in 2003 and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s fine three quarter length portrait of Watt painted in 1812. All of this material was acquired with the support of local charitable trusts and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Watt-related historic sites in Birmingham include Handsworth Parish Church, where Watt is buried; Aston Hall, home to James Watt Junior; Soho House the former home of Matthew Boulton; the Jewellery Quarter, where Watt lived for 15 years; Thinktank, home to the Smethwick Engine (the oldest working steam engine in the world) and Assay Office Birmingham, of which Watt was a Guardian.

About Lunar Society

Established around 1990, the modern Lunar Society provides a lively forum for its membership to influence change through stimulating ideas, broadening debate and catalysing action.

Today’s Society includes leading practitioners from all walks of life in Birmingham and the wider region.  Those that join are prepared to help shape the scientific, political and social agenda not just in Birmingham and the West Midlands, but nationally and internationally.

The Society actively works with other like-minded organisations to provide a dynamic programme of activities for its membership to influence change through focusing and informing debate, linking social, economic, scientific and cultural thinking, and catalysing action on issues critical to the common good.

About the University of Birmingham

The University of Birmingham is ranked among the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.