James Watt was born on 19th January 1736 in a house at the comer of William Street and Dalrymple Street, Greenock. This house was demolished in 1796 and over the years a number of developments took place on the site; but in 1878 the site was finally cleared and a proposal was made to use it for the erection of a memorial to Watt.
In 1902 the Scots-born steel tycoon, Andrew Carnegie offered to donate £10,000 towards a suitable monument. The Glasgow architects H & D Barclay designed and were responsible for the building of this memorial to James Watt. The memorial was to replace the old Greenock Technical School which was situated in Trafalgar Street and offered evening classes in technical education. On 1st June 1908 Dr Andrew Carnegie opened the Watt Memorial Engineering and Navigation School as it was then called. The school was perhaps unique, standing as it does as a Memorial on the site of the birthplace of the famous engineer James Watt. Dr Carnegie had himself contributed the greater portion of the finance necessary to found the school, and was also most active in encouraging public subscription.
The Alan Ker School on Ann St – opened in 1813 – was to be used for laboratory accommodation. By present standards the School, consisting as it did of two rooms, one above the other, was an extremely modest venture, but from this small beginning has grown the present college with campuses at Finnart St and the Waterfront in Greenock plus the Kilwinning campus in Ayrshire.
The subjects taught in the original building were Marine Engineering and Navigation, while about 1913 Radiotelegraphy was introduced as a subject and, since the two rooms were fully occupied, the tradition was established of students sitting on the staircase while the teacher worked on a blackboard placed on a landing. This latter section increased in popularity and was later moved to Shaw St School.