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1980 – “Watt’s Steam Engine” Unknown

The generally held belief that James Watt perfected his steam engine in Bo’ness carries a grain of truth, but little more than a grain. He was encouraged by Doctor Roebuck to come to Bo’ness to build a steam engine which would pump out water from the pits and allow miners to get the seams of coal under Bo’ness and district. He enjoyed some little success and more than enough failures.

Born in Greenock, he worked as a struggling mathematical instrument maker at Glasgow University when a friend of Dr Roebuck spoke to him of the problems associated with pumping water from the pits and mines at the same time being suffered by his Bo’ness friend.

At this time, Dr Black spoke to Dr Roebuck of this brilliant young man who had invented the steam engine. On hearing this, Roebuck wrote Watt. At first he was doubtful of the principle of the engine and induced him to revert back to the old concept.

Watt, much against his own convictions tried the older methods, but failure after failure resulted in Watt becoming depressed at his lack of success.

Up to this time, Roebuck and Watt had never met. The doctor urged him to travel to Bo’ness, but Watt at that time did not keep good health and reluctantly refused the invitation.

Agreeing to meet at Carron Iron Works in Falkirk where Roebuck had more than a passing interest, Watt sent on a series of drawings for a steam cylinder to be cast there. It contained several faults, wasn’t correct in line and twisted beyond reasonable use.

The piston rod was cast in Glasgow, but Watt was reluctant to send it off as people did not take kindly to mechanism in those days. It subsequently was sent off in a box in July of 1766.

In 1776, Roebuck was so taken by Watt’s ideas that he undertook to give Watt £1000 to carry on with the work. His return on that was to be two-thirds of the property of the invention.

In 1778, Watt produced an engine with an eight-inch cylinder. Unfortunately mercury found its way into the machine playing havoc with the lead content.

He proceeded to patch up this engine and one month later, he rode into Bo’ness with the engine to be housed in a small “But and Ben,” the remains of which stand to this day.

The model was successful and it was agreed that a patent should be taken out which meant a travel to Berwick-on-Tweed to obtain the protection papers.

Castings were made in Carron and Glasgow which doesn’t appear to throw the local moulders into a good light.

Watt used this period to perfect his steam operated pumps and his reputation captured the interest of Matthew Boulton of Birmingham.

These firms had the resources available to them to allow Watt to progress further in his work with the Birmingham firm benefiting from the experience James Watt had gained in Bo’ness under the patronage of Dr Roebuck.

The firm of Watt and Boulton was formed and James Watt as we know him now prospered never forgetting the assistance given him by Dr Roebuck and his 12-year association with Bo’ness.

The pump stationed at Taylor’s Pit was described as one of the fastest ever seen and worked continually for many years. Yet another at the Temple Pit worked pumping water out of this “Damp” pit for many years.

The present cylinder at Kinneil is one of a number which lay at the site of the former School Yard Brae Pit. The Town Council in the late 40s decided that it represented an industrial relic of considerable value which was part of the history of Bo’ness. They moved it to stand beside the cottage at Kinneil.

While it is quite wrong for anyone to claim that Watt discovered the Steam Engine in Bo’ness, it is perfectly right to say that Bo’ness played a big part in the perfection of a part of the industrial revolution in Britain. James Watt had good reason to thank Bo’ness and in Particular Dr John Roebuck ( 1718 – 1794 ).


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