James Watt

James Watt was a mechanical engineer whose chief claim to fame was that he developed the use of the steam engine in the 18th Century. He was born in Greenock in 1736 and worked as an instrument maker at Glasgow University. He was a friend of the professor and father of economics, Adam Smith. He made many rulers, gauges, barometers and many other items that were used in shipping and navigation. He was always dextrous with his hands and good at maths, but he had not served as an apprentice so was not accepted as an engineer. He was a worrier and not a good businessman, but he started his most important work on improving the steam engine.

The Newcomen steam engine was a basic machine that was used for pumping in mines. Watt found it to be very inefficient especially in the heating and cooling of the cylinder. He designed and built a separate cylinder outside of the main machine. This made the machine more viable. He had various backers, but the most important was Thomas Boulton. Watt’s improvements to the engine required a better and more accurately made piston. He moved to Birmingham where Boulton helped him achieve this. Together they patented the steam engine and was mainly used for pumping in Cornish mines.

Other improvements included a sun and moon device to make the action rotational, a steam jacket, a governor and a steam valve. Watt was jealous of his inventive improvements and patented his work. This allowed him to finally make money, but held back the development of the work. He did not experiment with high pressure steam as this held safety concerns for him.

His other work included a document copying machine and a chemical bleaching process. He retired in 1800, but the steam engine was starting to be involved in the blossoming textile industry and other leaps forward in the industrial revolution. It was to fire the railway mania of the 1830’s and would lead to new modern steam ships that could travel the world.

With ready markets in the new industrial Britain and plenty of coal to stoke the boilers, steam power was the driving force behind the rise of the British Empire. New cheaply mass-produced goods would flood world markets enriching the British.

You could imagine a slightly worried and obsessive man tinkering in his workshop seeking to improve his infernal steam engine and make it work in ever more efficient ways. Trying to make enough money to survive and ignoring those who poured scorn on his obsession. He had little success before the age of forty, but his determination changed the world.

Conway-Laird (2017)


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