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Learning 21 January 2019

Bo’ness and the Birth of the Industrial Revolution

Falkirk celebrates the local birthplace of one of the most important inventions in technological history.

On 5 January 1769, engineer and inventor James Watt, working out of the Kinneil Estate in Bo’ness, filed a patent for an innovative steam condenser that massively improved the efficiency of steam engines. The jump in available power that this provided to steam technology propelled the advancement of the industrial revolution, enabling massive social and economic change across the globe. Watt’s historical importance is reflected in the naming of the SI unit of power, the Watt.

Watt was invited to Kinneil Estate in Bo’ness by John Roebuck, the owner of the Carron Iron Works. He had leased Kinneil house and the nearby coalfield from the Duke of Hamilton but the mines continually flooded. In desperate need of a more powerful engine to pump out the water, Roebuck offered Watt the funds he needed to work on and patent his design, in exchange for a share of the profits from the patent.

The purpose-built cottage in which the young Watt constructed his experimental engine still stands today, tucked behind Kinneil house to shield from industrial espionage. Writing of his plans to Roebuck, Watt recommended: "On considering the engine to be erected with you, I think the best place will be to erect a small house in the glen behind Kinneil. The burn will afford us plenty of cold water, and we will be more free from speculation than we can be about Bo'ness."

With the 250th anniversary of the ground-breaking patent and 200th anniversary of Watt’s death both falling in 2019, Historic Environment Scotland, Falkirk’s Great Place project (Landscape, Industry, and Work) and Bo’ness group the Friends of Kinneil will be taking the opportunity to celebrate Watt’s historic achievements and his connection to the Falkirk area.

Dr Miles Oglethorpe, Head of Industrial Heritage at Historic Environment Scotland, said, “James Watt is one of Scotland’s greatest engineers and innovators, and is greatly revered across the world. It’s amazing to think that his greatest invention was perfected in Bo’ness, and that the building in which he did so can still be seen, adjacent to Kinneil House. The focus of Falkirk’s Great Place Scheme on ‘landscape, industry and work’ provides a great opportunity to celebrate Watt’s achievements, and those of other historic industries in Falkirk, such as the iconic Carron Company, with whom he did business. 2019 will therefore be a special year, and we in HES look forward to working with friends and colleagues in Falkirk and across Scotland to ensure that Watt receives the attention that he deserves.”

Falkirk: Landscape, Industry and Work is a project of the Great Place Scheme supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. The rich industrial heritage of the Falkirk area, of which Watt’s invention is a key example, will form one of the core themes of the project over the next two years.

James Watt’s cottage and the exterior of Kinneil House can be viewed year-round. Kinneil Museum is normally open six days a week and access to Kinneil House is offered through a limited number of open days. For information on Kinneil estate visit www.kinneil.org.

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