James Watt (1736-1819) is shown devising a major improvement to Glasgow University's inefficient Newcomen steam engine, an enhancement which he patented in 1769. Watt’s improved steam engine was more efficient and used pressurised steam to produced upwards and downwards power strokes. It totally eclipsed Newcomen’s engine. This history painting with a modern hero is unique in Lauder's career, his other work being mainly illustrations to Scott or Shakespeare, together with biblical episodes or portraits. This painting of James Watt is strongly influenced by the eighteenth century artist Joseph Wright of Derby's night scenes depicting scientific inventions.