James Watt’s shed: Anthropocene wormholes in the Firth of Forth

As ruins go, this one isn’t up to much.

The visitor can find it a short distance off the A993, a main road running along the southern coast of Scotland’s Firth of Forth.

James Watts' Shed, 2014Walls have been shored up with indelicate licks of concrete, and shorn of graffiti well enough. The visitor should spot a ubiquitous relic, cider – lively at 8.4%.

Cider, James Watt's workshopNo patina of time-worn memory clings to this ruin. The walls wear no shroud of melancholy; no barely felt absent-presences linger to move the seeker of ruinous pathos. The stones definitely don’t vibrate with emotional or affective force; they just sit there in a bored kind of way.

A passing dog-walker looks skeptical when I ask if this is James Watts’ shed. He says maybe, who knows. Nice day though, isn’t it?

The Council or Some Other Body has provided an interpretive sign for the visitor, but its text has dropped off, disappeared, or simply given up.

Sign, James Watt's workshop

I imagine that the sign, when it was alive, would have told me a tale of Scottish engineering prowess. It might have read something like this:

“Here lies the shed of James Watt, father of the steam engine. Here this plucky Scot overcame the straitjackets of Guild power and social hierarchy; here he incubated the industrial revolution; here he began the epochal shift from horse power to fossil fuel power.”

It is James Watts’ shed, yes – the man whose improved steam engine became instrumental in the industrial revolution. More accurately, it is the shed where Watt worked for his patron and financial backer, the industrialist John Roebuck, between 1767 and 1773. Here Watt spent long years improving Newcomen’s steam engine, tinkering, trying to get his new pipe-condensers, plate-condensers and drum-condenser to work properly.

Watt’s dreams ran ahead of his powers. His image of the technology-to-be called him, urged him stutteringly forward – an address from the future that he grasped for, night by night, experiment by experiment, trial by trial, slowly assembling his powers of invention, patronage, investment and capital. Watt wrote:

“I can think of nothing else but this engine.”

With each setback Roebuck became more impatient, Watt more tenacious in his grand tinkering. When Roebuck went bankrupt in 1773, Watt was distraught (he wrote that he could not “bear the thought of other people becoming losers by my scheme”). But one of Roebuck’s creditors, another industrialist, Boulton, took Watt on, “for love of you and love of a money-getting ingenious project.” Boulton knew that a properly efficient machine would allow more unlucky miners – men, women, and children alike – to burrow quicker and deeper into the Earth.

Watt and Boulton began to sell their engines, the shed traded up for a northern England factory. Watt wrote how

“The velocity, violence, and magnitude and horrible noise of the engine give universal satisfaction to all beholders, believers or not … the noise serves to convey great ideas of power to the ignorant.”

Watt was never simply  the author of a new machine. Rather, he was a subject emerging from his own works; less a genius who made a machine, more a machine that made a genius.

Watt and Boulton sold ten of their steam engines a year, rising to make a cumulative total of 451 – enough for Watt to buy a small mansion that he never really lived in.

Today, Watt’s patenting of his steam engine in 1769 is invoked as a politico-geological Cape Canaveral for the Anthropocene. Commonly, accounts have the steam engine unleashing a slow but irresistible wave of modernisation: a cascade running from a small invention to planet-encompassing processes. Watt has come to occupy a pivotal point in a fable of geo-history.

Such a fable would suck the unwary visitor to this dull ruin down a worm hole: he or she need not be transported not very far, emerging perhaps less than a mile away to the Grangemouth Refinery. This belching metropolis is a mature, fair-sized oil plant, with a capacity to process 205,000 barrels a day. Grangemouth’s history of disputes between labour, capital, and geology make Watt’s eighteenth-century problems with restive Cornish workers and reluctant pumps look like insignificant hiccups.

Grangemouth Refinery, Copyright RCAHMS
Grangemouth Refinery, Copyright RCAHMS

In going down this wormhole, Watt’s engine becomes transcendent, an angel of modernity grown to straddle the globe (even though its form changes and multiplies along the way, this is mere evolution of pre-given form). As Bruno Latour puts it, effectiveness is to technology what objectivity is to knowledge. When networks of knowledge are well composed, objectivity emerges. When technology “works”, all the twisting, discontinuous, folding, puzzling zig-zags of its making become invisible. Instead of mistaking effectiveness for technology, more properly,

the adjective “technological’ does not designate in the first place an object, a result, but a movement that is going to take from inert entities and from living ones – including the body of the artisan, which becomes more skillful by the day – what is needed to hold together in a lasting way. (Latour 2013, p225)

Although in the end it gave him more, the steam engine also took much from Watt – his time in the shed was not a happy one.

To fund his tinkerings, Watt surveyed for new canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and undertook other odd jobs, “honourable and perhaps profitable employment” as he called it. Away on one such trip, Watt received news that his wife was dying; in fact she had passed away during childbirth even before he received the news, and he hurried home in vain. Watt felt his absence as a tragedy inseparable from his thirst for the steam engine. Watt’s early engines were unsatisfactory, clumsy, his time dominated by “intermediate failures and uncouth constructions”. He was a fanatical worrier, money and the lack of it gnawed at him constantly – debt and ruin often loomed large. Though he was no solitary recluse, Watt was prone to depression, anxiety and ill-health, “plagued with headaches and sometimes heartaches,” as he put it, and often filled with dread “for his approaching doom” – the failure of his engine.

Watt’s technical gropings, his setbacks, and his depression. The way his dream of mechanical elegance – and of riches to come – called him on into his uncertain future. This being of technology is a long way from the author of a geological epoch. These stutterings do not map on to an Anthropocene wormhole – to invoke James Watt as some harbinger of a new earth is to remain deaf to his disappointments and triumphs, to the intimate foldings of man and machine.

Perhaps the sign might better read:

“Here James Watt tinkered with the engines that called him into being, beings that egged him on; here he was consumed by anxiety, and got a bit depressed. He left to make a lot of money by pumping water out of holes in the ground.”

James Watt's shed, sign


Carnegie A (1905) James Watt (Doubleday, Page & Company, New York).
Latour B (2013) An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence (Harvard University Press, Cambridge).
Tann J ed (1981) The selected papers of Boulton & Watt (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.).
Webb R (1972) James Watt : inventor of a steam engine (Franklin Watts, London).

With thanks to Julian for taking point on the cycle there and back…

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