COP26 – Part 1: Glasgow, Birthplace of the Anthropocene

This is the first of a pair of blogs exploring environmental aspects of the study of borrowing records from historic Scottish libraries, in recognition of the globally significant COP26 conference taking place in Glasgow in November 2021.

In 1763, the Greenock-born engineer James Watt was employed as an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow. At this time, he began experimenting with an improvement to the steam engine design of Thomas Newcomen. Six years later, on Thursday 5 January 1769, Watt was issued a patent for his ‘New Invented Method of Lessening the Consumption of Steam and Fuel in Fire Engines’. The subsequent evolution and application of this breakthrough – specifically the idea of using a separate condenser – would confirm its potential to radically augment the efficiency of steam engines.

Original James Watt Steam Engine Patent No. 913 of 1769.

In Newcomen’s early 1700s engine, steam was injected from the boiler (a in fig. 2) into a cylinder (c) and then condensed in the same space, driving a piston (k) by creating a partial vacuum at the moment of condensation. The weight of the gear would then return the piston to its starting point and the process could begin again. However, this cycle taking place in a single cylinder was inefficient, Watt realised, because steam and thus energy was used up in reheating the cylinder each time following the cooling action of the condensation. By separating out the condensing phase into a dedicated cold chamber (L in fig. 3) and allowing the steam cylinder to remain optimally hot, Watt’s new design eliminated much of the wasted thermal energy, improved the quality of the vacuum created in the cylinder by a more dramatic condensation phase, and burned far less coal for the same mechanical output.

Fig. 2, ‘Newcomen’s patent engine, 1705’, Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library.

In effect, this made fossil fuels a widely practicable energy source for the first time. An article in the European Magazine in May 1787 wrote of Watt’s work that ‘the prospect of advantage which may hereafter be derived from these engines can scarcely be estimated’. The same article declared that the Albion Mill in Southwark, Surrey, ‘calls our attention to the great changes it is probable this agent [steam] may hereafter produce in the appearance of the civilized world’.[1]

This hardly proved to be hyperbole. Watt’s development of the separate condenser is now widely recognised as among the most significant inventions of the eighteenth century. Combined with later improvements including Watt’s 1784 parallel motion mechanism, it helped to supercharge the nascent industrial revolution, transforming steam power from a relatively niche emerging technology into a marketable phenomenon that would reshape manufacturing and transportation, and in so doing reshape the planet. It is for this reason that in 2000 Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer dated the beginning of what they called the ‘anthropocene’ – that is, a distinct era marked by the impact of human activity in the geologic record ­– specifically to Watt’s improvements to the steam engine.[2]

Fig. 3, ‘Watt’s Steam Engine’, Encyclopædia Britannica, 3rd edn, 18 vols (Edinburgh: A. Bell and C. Macfarquhar, 1797), vol. 17, Plate 479.

The modern world that grew up around the use of fossil fuels from coal onwards, including what we now know of their consequences including disastrous climate change and biodiversity loss, thus owes much to Watt’s ingenuity. Viewed from an institutional perspective, the University of Glasgow where he was making his signature breakthrough in the early 1760s was home to multiple colossuses of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Joseph Black and Adam Smith. Smith’s 1776 An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is of course a contested masterpiece in the theorisation of laissez-faire economics that accompanied the economic and technological ascendancy of Scotland and Britain in the eighteenth century.

It is worth noting here that the root definition of the Enlightenment’s doctrine of progress, ‘improvement’, was concerned with raising the value of land – with generating a financial profit.[3] Watt, for his part, made a fortune from his innovations. Certainly the commercial aspect of the idea of improvement in the eighteenth century brings Watt and Smith into intimate dialogue within a culture navigating and debating social and material forms of progress.

Smith develops a nuanced position in the Wealth of Nations, attacking mercantilism in favour of self-regulating markets, championing the economic benefits of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market while flagging concerns about the social and moral effects of the division of labour on workers.[4] Certainly the Wealth of Nations should be read in dialogue with his earlier major treatise, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) with its exploration of the mediating influence of the ‘internal spectator’, or social conscience.

What is undeniable, however, is that Smith provided an enormously influential analysis of the macroeconomic environment that would underwrite steam and its successor technologies’ material power. Evidently Glasgow in the 1760s was an intellectual melting pot with an outsized voice in the unfolding spectacle of the agricultural and early industrial revolutions. In this respect, it was a hub within a distinctively Scottish ‘Age of Improvement’ that was taking off in the decade and would continue into the nineteenth century (if not beyond).[5]

Surrounded by intermittently extraordinary levels of economic growth as well as rapid social, political and environmental change driven by factors including modernised agricultural methods and urbanisation; sited on a cultural fault line between the (‘improved’) Scottish Lowlands and (notionally backwards) gàidhealtachd; possessed of a network of imperial trading concerns including colonial goods produced by slaves and indentured servants; Glasgow’s eighteenth century is a compelling microcosm of the system of disruptive and sometimes traumatic change we think of as modernity.


Against this background, then, sketched out here with necessarily broad brushstrokes, part 2 of this blog will think about ways in which the borrowing records of Glasgow University Library in the 1760s might reflect on the history of ‘improvement’ and the global environmental transformations it was set to generate.

Detail from Charles Ross, ‘A map of the shire of Lanark’ (1773). Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

[1] ‘Albion Mill’, The European magazine, and London Review, 11 (May, 1787): 364-67, (367, 364). The piece was reprinted as ‘Description of the Albion Mill, The Scots Magazine, 49 (June, 1787): 265-68.

[2] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, ‘The “Anthropocene”’, The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme Newsletter, 41 (May 2000): 17-18. Crutzen and Stoermer identify ‘the latter part of the 18th century’ and give 1784 for ‘Watt’s invention of the steam engine’.

[3] See my Dialectics of Improvement: Scottish Romanticism, 1786-1831 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 6.

[4] For these concerns about the division of labour, see Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 429-30.

[5] I outline this history in Dialectics of Improvement.