Born January 19, 1736
Died August 25, 1819
Scottish engineer, inventor
"The problem of which Watt solved a part is not the problem of inventing a machine, but the problem of using and storing the forces of nature which now go to waste."
James Watt is often credited with inventing the steam engine, but this distinction belongs to others. Instead, he adapted the invention of others to make the steam engine a practicable means of providing power to operate a wide range of machines. Such machines were the hallmark of the Industrial Revolution, a period of fast-paced economic change that began in Great Britain in the middle of the eighteenth century. In this sense, James Watt could be described as the father of the Industrial Revolution.
Watt's steam engine was the one innovation that did the most to change the way human beings lived and worked after about 1750. Watt's contribution was to increase the efficiency of the steam engine, so that it burned less coal for the same amount of energy produced. Earlier models used about four times as much coal as Watt's engine. Throughout his life Watt experimented and improved on his engine, refining systems that provide the basis for many industrial engines used today.
Birth and childhood
On January 19, 1736, Agnes Muirhead Watt gave birth to her fourth child, a baby boy. She and her husband named him James, after his father. The Watt family lived in the small seaport town of Greenock, Scotland. James Watt senior made a living however he could, working variously as a merchant, a carpenter, and a government administrator. Young James frequently assisted his father as a carpenter and from an early age enjoyed carpenter's tools more than books.
James was somewhat sickly and could not attend school as a young boy. Since three of the Watt babies had died in infancy, his mother was not inclined to send her boy out of the house when he was not well. But James learned well at home. Agnes read to her son and taught him to read. The home in which James grew up was well equipped with tools from his father's carpentry business, and as a young boy James received his own set of small tools from his father. James made good use of these tools. First he watched the skilled workmen in his father's shop, then he retreated to his room to practice taking apart and putting together navigation instruments or making miniature models of machines. The Watt family fit the pattern of craftspeople working at home that prevailed in Europe right up to the time of the Industrial Revolution.
When James was eighteen, his mother died and his father's fortunes declined. It was the beginning of a difficult period for Watt, and one that had a profound impact on his future career. Watt would become an apprentice (an assistant learning a trade) instead of following his father's failing business or going to the university.
Universal Public Education
Following the teaching of Scottish Protestant leader John Knox, a law passed in 1696 required families to send children to school, rather than employing them in home-based cottage industries like spinning and weaving. Scotland had one of the first laws making education of children compulsory.
Apprenticeship and early career
In 1754, at age eighteen, Watt left home for London, England, determined to apprentice himself to a master scientific instrument maker. It was a time when measuring things, such as distances, temperatures, and weight, was the chief occupation of most scientists.
Once in London, Watt obtained a job in the workshop of John Morgan, who made mathematical instruments. For the next year, Watt worked day and night. At the end of twelve months, he returned to his family home in Scotland, ready to look for a job as an instrument maker.
Watt's apprenticeship was a critical turning point. Had his father been able to afford it, chances are Watt would have attended the University of Glasgow, perhaps to become a mathematician like his grandfather. Instead, he went in the direction of working with his hands—as well as his head—and, of necessity, his mind turned toward the practical rather than the theoretical.
Shortly after his return from London, Watt was asked to repair an astronomical instrument given to the University of Glasgow. His repair was done so well that in 1757 the university offered him a job making and repairing scientific instruments for the mathematics department. The job provided a place to live and a workshop.
Watt's new position put him in the midst of other young men who had an intense interest in developments in science. Through his association with students and young faculty members, Watt acquired an extensive education in science, including physics, chemistry, and math.
James Watt Timeline
Born in Greenock, Scotland, on January 19.
Goes to London as an apprentice to a mathematical instrument maker.
Opens shop in Glasgow, Scotland, to make instruments and toys.
Marries Margaret Miller. Asked to repair a model of the Newcomen steam engine.
Enters into partnership with Matthew Boulton.
Invents rotary motion device for his steam engine.
Dies on August 25, at age eighty-four.
Watt's business was thriving, especially from jobs he was given from outside the university. In October 1759 Watt entered into a partnership with an architect named John Craig, and opened his own shop in Glasgow. The business grew and soon there was a need for a larger shop, where sixteen men were kept busy. The partnership ended with Craig's death in 1765.
Repairing a model steam engine
In the winter of 1763–64, Watt was asked to do another task in his university workshop: to repair a model of the steam engine that had been developed by Englishman Thomas Newcomen (1663–1729). Newcomen's early steam engine was similar to one made even earlier, in 1678, by another British inventor, Thomas Savery. By 1763, Newcomen's engine was widely used in Britain and its North American colonies to pump water out of coal mine shafts.
But Newcomen's engine was inefficient. It required enormous quantities of coal and three men to keep it running, and it operated slowly at only about ten strokes per minute. (A stroke is the movement of a piston from the top of the cylinder to the bottom, and back to the top.) Another disadvantage was that Newcomen's engine produced only a reciprocating movement, meaning that it moved strictly up and down. Much later, in 1781, Watt designed an engine that converted this reciprocating motion to one of rotation, which was much more useful in driving the machinery in factories and mills, as opposed to pumping water.
Joseph Black was one of the young men at the University of Glasgow who associated with James Watt. Born in 1728, Black studied medicine, but his greatest interest was in chemistry, and he become preeminent in that field. Among the many subjects Black studied, his observations on heat and steam were central to James Watt's work. At first, though, the relationship was the other way around: Watt helped Black with his work by making scientific instruments—critical to enable scientists like Black to take precise measurements in their laboratory experiments.
Black's main inquiries concerned the nature of heat and what happens when a hot object comes into contact with a cold one. At the time, scientists believed that objects had a mysterious quality called "caloric"—in essence, that objects contained "heat" that was transferred to colder bodies upon contact until the caloric in both bodies was equally distributed. Black conducted a range of experiments, measuring how heat was transferred between objects, especially water. Black's observations, later tested and confirmed by Watt, were a key ingredient in generating power by heating water until it turns to steam, and then cooling it again.
As he was repairing the model of a Newcomen engine, Watt began experimenting with some improvements. It was characteristic of Watt's work that he combined his knowledge of engineering—materials and mechanics—and his knowledge of physics—the qualities of steam and atmospheric pressure—to design a better engine.
In 1765 Watt made a model of his new steam engine. Four years later, in 1769, he patented it, but waited seven more years to work seriously on the idea that would bring him fame. And it took three more years until Watt's steam engine was put into practical use.
Business partnership and fortune
In 1769 Watt set about constructing a steam engine on the new principles he discovered while working on the Newcomen model. To help finance the project, he entered into a partnership with a doctor and businessman named John Roebuck (1718–1794). The business arrangement was not really a success, but Watt did manage to get a model of his new design up and working.
Five years later, in 1775, Watt once again formed a partnership, this time with industrialist Matthew Boulton (1728–1809). Boulton had a buckle-making factory near Birmingham, England, that employed about six hundred people. He was interested in discovering ways that science could help improve his business.
Under their arrangement, Boulton received two-thirds of the rights to Watt's patent for a steam engine; Watt received a salary, plus the full expenses of manufacturing the engines. It was this partnership that would at last work.
It took a year for the new firm of Boulton and Watt to produce their first steam engine. Finally, on March 8, 1776, a machine they were building to help pump water from a coal mine was demonstrated. A reporter from the Birmingham Gazette attended the demonstration and wrote: "Curiosity was excited to see the first movement of so singular and powerful a machine; and whose expectations were fully gratified by the excellence of its performance."
One great improvement of Watt's steam engine over the older Newcomen model was that it used only about one-fourth as much coal to achieve the same power. This proved to be an important factor in the business success of Boulton and Watt.
In 1786 Watt's company began building steam engines to operate cotton mills. It was an important development. Cotton clothes were in wide demand, colonists in America were growing plenty of cotton to supply the industry, and Watt's steam engine made the mills much more productive. The steam engine revolutionized the textile industry.
In 1800, at age sixty-four, Watt retired to a happy life in the country. But his curiosity and love of making things did not end with retirement. He moved back to Birmingham from the country and joined the Lunar Society, a group of intellectuals organized by Matthew Boulton. Watt set up a workshop in his attic; it can still be seen in a museum in London.
In his old age, Watt received many honors and much recognition. In 1784 he had been elected a member of the Royal Society in Edinburgh, Scotland. In 1785 he was elected to the Royal Society of London. In 1806 he received an honorary degree from the University of Glasgow, where he had worked as an instrument maker many years earlier. He received honors from Holland and France as well.
At the end of his life, Watt saw the Industrial Revolution fully launched. He wrote:
I have spent a long time in improving the arts and manufactures of the nation. My inventions at present, or lately, giving employment to the best part of a million people, and having added many millions to the natural riches, and therefore I have a natural right to rest in my extreme old age.
Did You Know?
James Watt's name is found in practically every room in the United States—printed on lightbulbs. The "watt" is a measure of power, and it was named in honor of James Watt. Strangely, James Watt had nothing to do with electricity or lighting. His expertise was in the ability of steam to transmit power.
On August 25, 1819, Watt died at his home at age eighty-four. A few years later, a statue of Watt was placed in Westminster Abbey, in London, with this inscription:
Who, directing the forces of an original genius,
Early exercised in philosophic research
to the improvement of
the steam engine,
enlarged the resources of his country
increased the power of men,
and rose to an eminent place among the most
illustrious followers of science and the real
benefactors of the world.
For More Information
Hart, Ivor Blashka. James Watt and the History of Steam Power. New York: H. Schuman, 1949.
Quackenbush, Robert M. Watt Got You Started, Mr. Fulton?: A Story ofJames Watt and Robert Fulton. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982.
Webb, Robert N. James Watt, Inventor of a Steam Engine. New York: F. Watts, 1970.
Pain, Stephanie. "The Flute-Maker's Fiddle." New Scientist, March 9, 2002, p. 48.
Wheeler, Mark. "Declaration of Independence: When Thomas Jefferson Wanted to Preserve His Papers, He Couldn't Wait for Xerox. So He Found a Way to Make Copies on His Own." Inc., September 17, 1996, p. 72.
Carnegie, Andrew. "James Watt." Steam Engine Library.http://www.history.rochester.edu/steam/carnegie/ (accessed on February 18, 2003).
"James Watt: Fascinating Facts about James Watt and His Improvements to the Steam Engine in 1769." The Great Idea Finder.http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventors/watt.htm (accessed on February 18, 2003).
Marshall, Thomas H. "James Watt." Steam Engine Library.http://www.history.rochester.edu/steam/marshall/ (accessed on February 18, 2003).