WATT, James.

Japanese fan depicting Watt's experiments with steam.

"An illustration of Mr. Watt, born in Scotland, conceiving the idea of the steam engine" [Sukotsūrando Koku ni Umare, Watto-shi Jōki (Kikan?) wo (Chakusō?)-suru Zu].

[c.1870] Stock Code: 141941
Reserve Ask us a question

An attractive, delicate, and understandably scarce Japanese fan depicting the popular scientific myth of James Watt timing the condensation of steam from a boiling kettle, the Japanese caption reading "an illustration of Mr. Watt, born in Scotland, conceiving the idea of the steam engine". We have been unable to locate any comparable fans either institutionally or in commerce, making this a notable survival.

Although the event is alleged to have occurred in Watt's childhood in Scotland, here he is presented working in Japan as a contemporarily dressed adult, the scene through the window featuring a traditional Japanese sailing boat. This work appeared at a time of intense "westernisation" in Japan, a key feature of which was the proliferation of images of Western scientists in a traditional Japanese style. "This was a time when Japan was opened up to Western science and technology, and evidently to its mythologies also" (Miller, p. 19). These images were produced with the purpose of encouraging young Japanese students to take up the mantle of those depicted and were often issued directly by the Japanese Ministry of Education (Insley, p. 39). The prints had a second purpose of encouraging persistence in the face of adversity, either personal - for example a woodcut print issued by the Ministry includes Watt's aunt discouraging him "from his nonsense", or financial, the Preface to Accounts of Invention Hatsumei Kiji (1872), a popular text account of Watt amongst others, stating that "it is said that the Western inventors Watt, Arkwright and Stephenson were all initially poor, but they paid no mind to this and in the end their reputation has carried on through the ages" (Meade, p. 80).

Confused? Read our glossary


Single concertinaed leaf of fan paper (430 x 125 mm). Window mounted in archival grade board (407 x 605 mm). Water-colour illustration, two red stamps, and black text to front. Stamp of sailing ship in black to reverse.


Remarkably well-preserved, minor nicks to edges; overall near-fine condition.


Helen Hardacre, New Directions in the Study of Meiji Japan (1997); Jane Insley, "Picturing James Watt", in The British Art Journal (2011); Ruselle Meade, "Popular Science and Personal Endeavor in Early-Meiji Japan: The Case of Hatsumei Kiji" in Historia S


With the exception of framed items*, Peter Harrington offers free delivery on all UK orders of rare books, maps and prints placed through this website. Delivery to USA and the rest of the world is similarly free for orders over £200.

View Full Delivery Details



Established in 1969, Peter Harrington is one of the leading rare book firms in the world. It is a proud member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association – along with ILAB, the PBFA and Lapada – and from shops in Mayfair and Chelsea, London, sells rare books, prints and ephemera to customers across the world.

Email: mail@peterharrington.co.uk

Tel: +44 (0)20 7591 0220

ABA Antiquarian Bookseller Association ILAB International League of Antiquarian Booksellers LAPADA The Association of Art and Anatique Dealers PBFA Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association

Our Guarantee Page

Ask us a question


Contact us with details of the book you are interested in or selling and we will contact you

Sell Old Books Help me find a book