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The name of James Watt is recognised worldwide as one of the most influential figures in the industrial revolution. Put simply he made the steam engine both useful and powerful for a whole range of industrial applications and, in so doing, ignited the spark of industrialisation. His name has immense recognition worldwide, particularly in cultures where Engineering is recognised as a prestigious profession, such as in Asia and the Far East. He is also recognized today for the adoption of the name “Watt” for the SI unit of power.
The University has always taken seriously its association with Watt and has worked hard to keep his spirit alive on campus through, for example, the naming of a building and the role of the James Watt Chairs. Previous holders of that role include Professor John Lamb, who pioneered optoelectronics and integrated optics research which helped underpin modern electrical and electronics engineering and today underpins much of quantum technology, Professor Chris Wilkinson, who pioneered nanotechnology fabrication and bioelectronics at the University and Professor Robert Silver, who invented the Multistage Flash (MSF) Distillation System to desalinate seawater.
The Enlightenment’s celebration of human progress, reason and scientific knowledge developed in countries that held people in slavery, and in the mid-eighteenth century very few people in Scotland challenged slavery and there was not yet an organized abolition movement. James Watt and his family were no different, and they made much of their money through trade in goods produced by enslaved people (such as sugar, rum and cotton from Antigua and other Caribbean islands), and in sending manufactured goods from Britain to plantation and slave owners. In 1762 James Watt himself was involved in the trafficking of an enslaved boy named Frederick from the Caribbean to his new Scottish master. However, between then and the end of the eighteenth century many Enlightenment figures began to question and then condemn the Atlantic slave trade and slavery itself, and Watt appears to have been one of them. By 1791 he was refusing to deal with at least some Caribbean slave owners, writing “We sincerely condole with the unhappy sufferers, though we heartily pray that the system of slavery so disgraceful to humanity were abolished by prudent though progressive measures.
The School of Engineering has, throughout its history, aligned itself to the innovative spirit of Watt through its research, its teaching and its professional leadership such as being the first School of Engineering in the UK, offering the first degree in Engineering in the UK and hosting the first Chair of Engineering in the UK.
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