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The workshop that changed the world

The room measures 6m by 5m, and could almost be a hyper-quaint visualisation from an animatronic version of a Dickens novel starring an orphaned fish with Eddie Murphy’s voice. And yet it was in this attic workshop - restored and open to the public from today at London’s Science Museum - that James Watt, inventor of the modern steam engine, presided over the industrial revolution.

In his day, Watt was as famous as Shakespeare, and was the first mechanical engineer to be commemorated in Westminster Abbey. When the imperious Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel visited Manchester in 1825, he was dumfounded by the ruthless efficiency of Manchester’s factories. By then, the patented Watt steam engines in them had already proved themselves in Cornish mines, in the industrial hellfire of the foundries of Shropshire and Staffordshire, and in London’s breweries.

While the poet and artist William Blake craved a new and romantically historic Jerusalem that would replace these dark satanic mills, Watt remained implacably of the future – not just as the first ultra-rational industrial designer, but the man who invented the idea of flexible factory spaces more than a century before Henry Ford built his factory in Detroit. That concept alone qualifies Watt as the first shock-of-the-new modernist 140 years before the official birth of the movement that gave us sanitation, skyscrapers, super-Jumbos and our permanent oil crisis.

Watt changed the course of history while walking in Glasgow Green park on a Sunday in May, 1764. He’d been trying to repair a Newcomen steam engine and was fretting about its crudely inefficient use of heat and steam. “I had not walked further than the golf house,” he recalled later, “when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.”

By the time Watt had his steam engine eureka moment, he’d already produced a stream of improvements to musical and scientific instruments, invented the first circular saw blades, and concocted a letter-copying machine which used his own brand of ink.

After moving to Birmingham to work with the equally progressive metal products manufacturer Adam Boulton, the Watt steam engine rapidly gave Britain an industrial lead over Europe and America that it was to hold for the best part of a century. said: “It wasn’t just Wellington and Nelson who triumphed over the French,” says Science Museum curator Andrew Nahum. “Watt was seminal to the success of our industrial revolution because he wanted to make a profit out of science.”

Watt’s design solutions did not arise from perfectly ordered surroundings. His workshop is a thoroughly messy overlapping of objects and projects that seems to have been crucial to his famously restless mind. The room is a musty time-capsule of his genius, and has been meticulously recreated in the Science Museum’s new gallery. An incurving glass wall allows visitors to stand in the middle of the workshop, surrounded by its contents.

It’s extraordinary to think that Watt’s seismic influence on the industrial world - and, ultimately, on the way we live in the 21st century - could have come from nothing more than this cramped attic space. The workshop, locked after his death in 1819 and carefully preserved as a shrine, was brought to London in 1924. It contains 8,434 objects, including a stove, frying pan, writing desk, lathe, workbench, flasks, moulds, dozens of dusty packets of chemicals, scores of crammed pigeon-holes, a box full of rock fragments, and chunks of marble for his sculpture-copying machine.

In our age of nerdy specialisms, this small, rather dark room radiates a sombre grandeur. The Science Museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, admits that the institution has ignored its vast trove of scientific objects for a decade, in favour of interactive displays. James Watt’s strangely compelling workshop proves that the virtual – with or without an Eddie Murphy voiceover – can never be quite as engrossing as the hard evidence of scientific advance.

James Watt and our World, a permanent exhibition at the Science Museum, London, opens today