“Who was Heriot Watt Anyway?”

Nope, he wasn’t the son, brother, father or uncle of anyone, no matter what your mate on the bus says.

There’s probably no reason anyone outside Heriot-Watt University would know the origin of the name. Going by other universities around the world – John Moores, Queen Margaret, Robert Gordon – it’s fair to assume that they are named after one person.

Heriot-Watt's Edinburgh Campus

Heriot-Watt’s Edinburgh Campus

Heriot-Watt University, however, takes its name from two very different men from two very different ages in history – George Heriot and James Watt.

George Heriot, 1563-1624

George Heriot

George Heriot, jeweler to James VI, I and Queen Anne, attributed to John Scougall.

George Heriot is believed to have been born in either Edinburgh or Gladsmuir, East Lothian, the eldest son of a wealthy Goldsmith of the same name, in June 1563.

George was initially appointed Goldsmith to the wife of King James VI of Scotland, Anne of Denmark, and then in 1601 to the King himself. A goldsmith at the time meant more than simply selling jewellery – he essentially became the King’s banker, an opportunity which meant he would soon become even more wealthy. With the King and Queen harboring a love of jewellery, George would often loan the money to them (at an attractive rate of interest!), in order to buy his own jewellery.

After the Union of the Crown in 1603, when the death of a childless Elizabeth I meant that Scottish King James VI became King James I of England and Ireland, George followed the King to his new court in London. His wealth and influence only grew during this time.

Heriot died childless in London on 12th February 1624 and was buried in St Martin-in the-Fields. He is remembered around the city of Edinburgh, most notably by the George Heriot School, but also with Jinglin’ Geordies, a pub near Waverley Station named after the noise it is said he made when he walked due to all his coins!

The trust which was left after his death was used to secure the future of what became Heriot-Watt College in 1885.

James Watt, 1736-1819

Painting of James Watt, the noted Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer by Carl Frederik von Breda.

Painting of James Watt, the noted Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer by Carl Frederik von Breda.

Of an altogether different generation, James Watt was born in Greenock on the 19th January 1736 – over a hundred years after the death of George Heriot.

Initially a mathematical instrument maker, his attention was eventually drawn to steam, and how it could be used as a source of powering machines. At this point, understanding the steam engine was at a very early stage, although Watt was one of its pioneers in improving its design.

These steam engines were incredibly inefficient and resulted in a lot of steam loss, but Watt’s breakthrough resulted in an engine which kept most of the steam power intact, creating a much more powerful engine. This new engine used only 20-25% as much coal per horsepower-hour as the previous designs, and was critical to the development of the Industrial Revolution. Watt became a wealthy man, and was able to devote the rest of his life to research.

Oh, he also invented the first photocopier. Not a lot of people know that.

Letter copying press patented by James Watt

Letter copying press patented by James Watt, with (l-r) Principal smith, Principal Nisbet, Principal Smail, J Gibson-Watt MP and Prof. E.O. Taylor in 1968.

James Watt i’s also featured on the Bank of England’s Fifty Pound note – click here to read more about this story.

Chris Salmon, Bank of England's Executive Director for Banking Services and Chief Cashier, presents Professor Steve Chapman, Principal of Heriot-Watt University, with a £50 banknote featuring James Watt  in 2011.

Chris Salmon, Bank of England’s Executive Director for Banking Services and Chief Cashier, presents Professor Steve Chapman, Principal of Heriot-Watt University, with a £50 banknote featuring James Watt in 2011.

James Watt died on the 18th August, 1819 in Birmingham at the age of 83.

Heriot-Watt University

The story of how the names of these two giants of their field came together to form Heriot-Watt University is told eloquently in Patrick O’Farrell’s book, “Heriot-Watt University – An Illustrated History“.

Initially the School of Arts of Edinburgh founded in 1821, funding sources allowed the name to be changed to the Watt Institution and allowed a broader range of subjects to be taught. Further, in 1885, funding from George Heriot’s Trust allowed the name to be changed to Heriot-Watt College, and after gaining university status, was formally named Heriot-Watt University on February 1st 1966.

Which brings us up to today, with a modern and successful university, with an international outlook but a strong local heritage.

You can find out more about Heriot-Watt University by clicking here.

Are there aspects of Heriot-Watt’s history and heritage you would like us to cover? Leave a comment below and we’ll do our best!

James Watt Statue outside the main entrance to Heriot-Watt's Edinburgh campus.

James Watt Statue outside the main entrance to Heriot-Watt’s Edinburgh campus.

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2 Responses to “Who was Heriot Watt Anyway?”

  1. kenneth mclean says:

    Heriot Watt may not have been anyone’s brother or uncle , but I believe I am related to James Watt, through my maternal grandmother, Margaret Williams Watt from Glasgow. Now I’m interested in studying a distance Masters program, and get a thrill from knowing a founder may be a relative.

    Kenneth McLean

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