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James Watt harnessed the phenomenal power of steam

Posted in Engineering, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Industry, Inventions, Science, Scotland on Monday, 3 December 2012

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This edited article about James Watt originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 790 published on 5th March 1977.

James Watt, picture, image, illustration

James Watt with various kilns and mechanical pumps

“Get off that floor at once, Jamie, or you’ll be coughing all night. It’s damp and cold. I’m sure you can do your drawings on your slate just as well.”

Mrs. Watt, mother of the delicate James Watt, was naturally angry. Her son was too unwell to go to school in the winter, and it was a constant problem for her to keep him occupied.

Paper for drawing was expensive – particularly in those hard times in Scotland, with English soldiers invading the country, and the Scottish victory of Prestonpans so soon followed by the terrible defeat at Culloden.

But the lines and circles young James drew on the heavy flagstones of the kitchen floor were not just childish drawings, as his father and mother believed.

For, in one of the brief periods when he was well enough to go to school, Jamie had got a glimpse of the science of geometry.

From that painstaking work in chalk on his mother’s kitchen floor, James Watt set out on the road to make his name immortal among engineers.

The legend is that this thoughtful boy obtained the idea for a steam engine when the steam lifted the lid of his mother’s kettle. But in later life he never mentioned such an incident.

Geometry, and all the careful measuring that it involved, remained his passion.

In 1755, partly to escape from the damp climate, and also because he wanted to be in touch with the finest scientific brains in the country, he set off for London when he was in his teens.

In London he got a job with a scientific instrument maker, helping to produce and assemble sextants, compasses and other ships’ devices, as well as ordinary geometrical instruments.

He did so well that in a few years he was able to return to Scotland, where he set up his own instrument-making shop in Glasgow.

The professors of Glasgow University were delighted to have such a useful craftsman available and he was later appointed official instrument-maker to the University.

One day the university asked him to repair a model of a Newcomen pumping engine used to instruct the technical students. Some of them, playing with the model, had broken it.

The Newcomen engine was a cumbersome but useful device which had been used to pump water out of mines.

It was not a steam engine in a real sense. It had no wheels, and did not use the steam’s thrusting power.

A piston in a vertical cylinder was connected to a beam, on the other end of which was a counterweight. The pressure of steam admitted to the cylinder, together with the pull of the counterweight, raised the piston.

The steam valve then closed, and another valve played cold water on the inside of the cylinder. This condensed the steam and created a vacuum, which pulled the piston down.

James was a Scotsman, and he hated waste. The Newcomen idea of making the cylinder hot one moment and dousing it with cold water the next seemed to him a terribly spendthrift way of using the energy of burning wood or coal.

For two years he worked on alternative ideas.

One idea led to another until he not only cut out the waste of the original Newcomen engine, but by admitting the steam into the top and bottom of the cylinder, and controlling it with valves, he made a true steam engine, using the power to drive the piston up and down.

Into the picture next came Dr. John Roebuck, who was worried by the fact that water was flooding into several of the coal mines he owned, endangering the lives of the miners.

He had heard of young James Watt and went to see him in his workshop. He was so impressed by the young Scottish inventor that he decided to finance him. Watt went to work in the outbuildings of Roebuck’s mansion.

This was a dark era in Watt’s life. He was often ill, dissatisfied with his work and made no real progress. Roebuck’s fortune went down and down until finally the mine owner failed altogether, his financial interest in Watt’s inventions now went to a metal goods manufacturer, Matthew Boulton of Soho, Birmingham.

For Watt, this was the turning point. Boulton was the man who gave Watt his big chance, who saw looming in the young Scotsman’s mind the final steps which would harness steam and make it drive machinery.

It meant that for the first time since the dawn of history, things were efficiently moved without the use of human physical strength, apart from the limited application of water-wheel, windmill or sails.

It meant that the way was clear for the design of the most complicated machinery, for power would be available to run it.

Boulton had a magnificent engineering works. He could make anything that Watt designed.

The first machines were just improved pumps, but in 1781 Watt patented a device to turn the up-and-down movement of the piston into the rotary movement of a wheel. This was the steam engine, the unit of power.

Talkative workmen in the factory spread the news, and others rushed through inventions. The result was that Watt’s patent became a subject of legal action.

Just to show his contempt for these dishonest imitators, he retired to his office and invented five different ways of getting rotary motion from his engine.

Wealth and fame were his. His engines went into the new factories of the textile industry and enabled hundreds of unworkable mines to be pumped dry.

Before he died in 1819, boats were powered by steam, engines were sailing the seas and steam locomotives were hauling wagons at collieries.

James Watt remained a strange and not very happy man until his death at the age of eighty-three. “My only pleasures have been idleness and sleep,” he told friends.

But he was never idle and his constant ill-health rarely allowed him a good night’s rest. His inventive mind was perpetually seeking out new ideas, any one of which would have brought him renown if it had not been for his momentous work to harness steam.

Few people now realise, for instance, that this remarkable Scotsman was the inventor of copying ink, that he took some crude photographs through the action of silver nitrate exposed to light, and first worked out the formula for horse-power – which he did, characteristically, by getting carthorses to pull at different weights.

All sorts of memorials exist to this famous man. Without doubt, the one he would have liked best is that his name, or at least the initial W, appears on every electrical light bulb. A watt is a unit of electricity, and so named in honour of the man who not only harnessed the earlier power of steam, but laid down the formula for calculating the work done by any machine in terms of horse-power.

The electrical unit would have mystified Watt himself – but how he would have enjoyed puzzling it out!

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