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Series Four: Sources from Record Offices in the United Kingdom

Part 3: The Papers of James Watt (1736-1819) and James Watt, jnr (1769-1848) from the James Patrick Muirhead Collection, at Glasgow University Library

James Patrick Muirhead is remembered as the biographer of the engineer and scientist James Watt senior, leading member of the Lunar Society and key figure of the Industrial Revolution.  For Victorian and later writers the Watt steam engine became synonymous with industrial growth and progress in Britain.  Today Muirhead’s biographies remain the major source for scholars of James Watt, his life and achievements.

Muirhead was born in Lanarkshire in 1813 the son of Lockhart Muirhead who was principle librarian and regius professor of natural history in Glasgow University.  His maternal grandmother was the first cousin of James Watt.  Muirhead was educated in Glasgow College and later Balliol College, Oxford, practising law in Edinburgh for eight years before moving to Haseley Court in Oxfordshire.  In 1844 Muirhead married Katharine Elizabeth, daughter of Matthew Robinson Boulton and granddaughter of Matthew Boulton, the manufacturer and entrepreneur. 

During his time at Oxford Muirhead became acquainted with James Watt, jnr who later requested Muirhead to write the memoir of his father.  In 1854 Muirhead published The Origins and Progress of the Mechanical Inventions of James Watt.  The first volume contains a detailed biography and a selection of Watt’s correspondence illustrating his achievements.  The second volume continues the correspondence and the third contains the full texts and drawings of all Watt’s patents, including excerpts from the patent trials of the 1790s.  Later, in 1858 Muirhead published an abbreviated edition The Life of James Watt with Selections from his Correspondence.

While the collection as a whole is described as papers relating to the Muirhead family, the bulk of the material is connected with Muirhead’s biographies of Watt. 

Papers concerning the biography include:

  • c.900 letters between James Watt, jnr and Muirhead, 1834-1847
  • letters and papers about James Watt, c.1816-65
  • items for the printing and sales of James Watt’s biography, c.1858-60
  • papers concerning the Great Eastern steamship, 1859
  • the Soho engine works, 1859
  • letters to Muirhead concerning Watt’s biography, 1858-9
  • letters from Muirhead to Rev Napier, 1855-71

Items relating to the Muirhead family include:

  • diary of a Voyage to Sicily, 1793, and journals of other journeys in France and Italy by James Watt, jnr
  • Muirhead’s translation of D F J Arago’s Historical Eloge of James Watt (1834), being the first biography of Watt: published in 1839
  • papers concerning the funeral of Matthew Boulton, 1842

In addition, to complement and broaden the understanding of the manuscript collection we include a selection of Muirhead’s published works on James Watt.  These include:

  • The Origin and the Progress of the Mechanical Inventions of James Watt (1854)
  • Life of James Watt with Selections from his Correspondence (1858)
The James Patrick Muirhead collection contains valuable material for those studying the development and growth of the Industrial Revolution through the lives and achievements of James Watt and James Watt, jnr. 

Editorial introduction
Digital Guide
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