In spite of his limited advantages and frail health, at fifteen he was the wonder of the public school, which he had attended for two years. His favorite studies were mathematics and natural philosophy. He had also made good progress in chemistry, physiology, mineralogy, and botany, and, at the same time, had learned carpentry and acquired some skill as a worker in metals.
So studious and ambitious a youth scarcely needed the spur of poverty to induce him to make the most of his talents. The spur was there, however, and, at the age of eighteen, though delicate in health, he was obliged to go out and battle with the world.
Having first spent some time in Glasgow, learning how to make mathematical instruments, he determined to go to London, there to perfect himself in his trade.
Working early and late, and suffering frequently from cold and hunger, he broke down under the unequal strain, and was obliged to return to his parents for a time until health was regained.
Always struggling against great odds, he returned to Glasgow when his trade was mastered, and began to make mathematical instruments, for which, however, he found little sale. Then, to help eke out a living, he began to make and mend other instruments,—fiddles, guitars, and flutes,—and finally built an organ,—a very superior one, too,—with several additions of his own invention.
A commonplace incident enough it seemed, in the routine of his daily occupation, when, one morning, a model of Newcomen’s engine was brought to him for repair, yet it marked the turning point in his career, which ultimately led from poverty and struggle to fame and affluence.
Watt’s practiced eye at once perceived the defects in the Newcomen engine, which, although the best then in existence could not do much better or quicker work than horses. Filled with enthusiasm over the plans which he had conceived for the construction of a really powerful engine, he immediately set to work, and spent two months in an old cellar, working on a model. “My whole thoughts are bent on this machine,” he wrote to a friend. “I can think of nothing else.”
So absorbed had he become in his new work that the old business of making and mending instruments had declined. This was all the more unfortunate as he was no longer struggling for himself alone. He had fallen in love with, and married, his cousin, Margaret Miller, who brought him the greatest happiness of his life. The neglect of the only practical means of support he had reduced Watt and his family to the direst poverty. More than once his health failed, and often the brave spirit was almost broken, as when he exclaimed in heaviness of heart, “Of all the things in the world, there is nothing so foolish as inventing.”
Five years had passed since the model of the Newcomen engine had been sent to him for repair before he succeeded in securing a patent on his own invention. Yet five more long years of bitter drudgery, clutched in the grip of poverty, debt, and sickness, did the brave inventor, sustained by the love and help of his noble wife, toil through. On his thirty-fifth birthday he said, “To-day I enter the thirty-fifth year of my life, and I think I have hardly yet done thirty-five pence worth of good in the world; but I cannot help it.”