Saturday, 11 October 2014

James Watt Background

James Watt was born in 1736 in Greenock near Glasgow.  His father was a ship builder and this led to Watt's interest in navigation instruments.  When Watt grew up he told his father he didn't want to follow him into the ship building Industry, but wanted to become an instrument maker.  His father supported him in this decision after losing lots of money in the ship building industry.
Watt, being unable to secure am apprenticeship in Glasgow moved to London where he completed a 7 year apprenticeship in 1 year.  During this year he worked 10 hour days and continued to work in the evenings.  He spent most of his time away from the streets as young, able bodied men were being forcibly enrolled to fight in the war with France at that time.
When Watt returned to Scotland the following year he was shunned by other instrument makers due to his short apprenticeship and the fact that he had undertaken this in London.  Connections that he had from Grammar school recognised his skill and created the position of 'Mathematical Instrument Maker to the University' in Glasgow and Watt set up his workshop there.
It was at the University that Watt was presented with the Newcomen Engine and began to work through some of the issues it had.  He mused over the engine for two years, until walking on the Green one day, thinking upon the engine he returned home with 'the whole thing arranged in my mind'.
From the reading I have done about Watt, it seems that he had the great fortune to be paired with the right people at the right times.  Investors, business men, entrepreneurs.  Watt was a thinker and an engineer, and by all accounts was relatively quiet, shy and good hearted.  Bolder men helped him to get patents, financial backing, pitched sales and in 1769 Watt's improved engine was patented.  In 1774 the patent was bought by Boulton who provided the work space and craftsmen Watt needed to get his engine working efficiently until it was applied to mining, mills and the textile industry.
Watt retired in 1800 at the age of 64, comfortably well off and with a satisfying list of achievements.

For me, as much as Watt's story is interesting, the material above didn't really inspire a song for me.  Maybe its my folk tradition background, but success stories don't generally get me writing.  It was what happened after Watt retired and before he died in 1819 that inspired a folk song in me.

When Watt's engine was applied to the mining industry it replaced ponies.  When it was applied to textiles, men began to lose their jobs.  The many people who had flocked to the cities to find work, found that their work was dwindling and that their families were starving.  They began to rise up.  Most famously the 'luddites' began to destroy the factory machinery in protest to these hard times.  And to demonstrate that industry turns the wheel of parliament, the House of Lords passed the Frame breaking Act in 1812.  This Act imposed the death penalty for those who damaged textile machinery.  And shortly after the passing of the Act, 7 men were hung for damaging said machinery.

And here we have the subject matter for a folk song.  The passing of the Frame Breaking Act was spoken out strongly against by Lord Byron.  Indeed the Romantic poets were highly vocal in their opposition to 'man's scientific control over the earth' arguing that 'man was a part of nature and needed to respect and care for the earth'.  My experience is that artists respond to social change before anybody else does, and I draw on Wordsworth poem 'London 1802', in which he calls on Milton to return as man appeared to be going down a dangerous path.  Thus, my song (in it's draft form so far) finds Watt after he has read about the luddites' executions, having read the romantic poets' prose and looking back on his own life and forward to the world that his children and grandchildren will occupy.  My song is Watt's response to the events of 1812 and the questions he asks himself.  I have called the song '1812' as a response to Wordsworth's poem and in reference to the frame breaking Act passed that year.

My Reading was taken mainly from the following sites:
http://www.egr.msu.edu/~lira/supp/steam/wattbio.html
www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/watt_james.shtml
http://history.knoji.com/poets-versus-the-industrial-revolution/
William Wordsworth poem: London 1802

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