Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,484 pages of information and 245,913 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

James Watt

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James Watt
His workshop in Heathfield. Published in The Engineer in 1877. From a watercolour by W. C. Aitkin.
James Watt's Room
James Watt
Statue of James Watt at Montevideo Railway Station, Uruguay. Photographed in 2010.
1925. His workshop at Heathfield Hall.
Steam indicators.
This bench micrometer at the London Science Museum is ascribed to James Watt, but there are considerable doubts about its origins
JD Watt mic02Copy.jpg

James Watt (1736–1819) was a Scottish inventor and engineer whose improvements to the steam engine were fundamental to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution.

1736 January 19th. James Watt was born in Greenock to James Watt (1698-1782). His father was a shipwright, ship owner and contractor, while his mother, Agnes Muirhead, came from a distinguished family and was well-educated. Both were Presbyterians and strong Covenanters.

Watt attended school irregularly and instead was mostly schooled at home by his mother. He exhibited great manual dexterity, an aptitude for mathematics, while Latin and Greek left him cold, and he absorbed the legends and lore of the Scottish people.

1753 When he was seventeen, his mother died and his father's health had begun to fail. Watt travelled to London to study instrument-making for a year, then returned to Scotland – to Glasgow – intent on setting up his own instrument-making business. However, because he had not served at least seven years as an apprentice, the Glasgow Guild of Hammermen (any artisans using hammers) blocked his application, despite there being no other mathematical instrument-makers in Scotland.

Watt was saved from this impasse by the professors of the University of Glasgow, who offered him the opportunity to set up a small workshop within the university. It was established in 1757 and one of the professors, the physicist and chemist Joseph Black, became Watt's friend and mentor.

1761 Four years after opening his shop, Watt began to experiment with steam after his friend, Professor John Robison, called his attention to it. At this point Watt had still never seen an operating steam engine, but he tried constructing a model. It failed to work satisfactorily, but he continued his experiments and began to read everything about it he could. He independently discovered the importance of latent heat in understanding the engine, which, unknown to him, Joseph Black had famously discovered some years before. He learned that the University owned a model Newcomen Engine, but it was in London for repairs. Watt got the university to have it returned, and he made the repairs in 1763. It too just barely worked, and after much experimentation he showed that about 80% of the heat of the steam was consumed in heating the cylinder, because the steam in it was condensed by an injected stream of cold water. His critical insight, to cause the steam to condense in a separate chamber apart from the piston, and to maintain the temperature of the cylinder at the same temperature as the injected steam, came finally in 1765 and he soon had a working model.

1764 At age 28, Watt married his cousin Margaret Miller, with whom he had five children, two of whom lived to adulthood. She died in childbirth in 1773.

Now came a long struggle to produce a full-scale engine. This required more capital, some of which came from Black. More substantial backing came from John Roebuck, the founder of the celebrated Carron Iron Works, near Falkirk, with whom he now formed a partnership. But the principal difficulty was in machining the piston and cylinder. Iron workers of the day were more like blacksmiths than machinists, so the results left much to be desired. Much capital was spent in pursuing the ground-breaking patent, which in those days required an act of parliament.

1769 Watt took out his first patent on the steam engine with the support of Dr Roebuck who acquired two-thirds of the rights to the invention.

When Watt removed from Glasgow to Birmingham in May, 1774, he brought with him his imperfect cylinder of hammered tin, which was found useless and abandoned early in 1775. By April of that year he had obtained a new cast iron cylinder, presumably bored on Wilkinson's new machine, and this proved satisfactory. Watt, writing to Smeaton in April, 1776, said, "Mr· Wilkinson has improved the art of boring cylinders so that I promise upon a 72in. cylinder being not further from absolute truth than the thickness of a thin sixpence in the worst part."

1775 An Act of Parliament was passed for the extension of Watt's patent.

Strapped for resources, Watt was forced to take up employment as a surveyor for eight years. Roebuck went bankrupt, and Matthew Boulton, who owned the Soho Manufactory near Birmingham, acquired his patent rights. Watt and Boulton formed a hugely successful partnership (Boulton and Watt), which lasted for the next twenty-five years.

Watt finally had access to some of the best iron workers in the world. The difficulty of the manufacture of a large cylinder with a tightly fitting piston was solved by John Wilkinson who had developed precision boring techniques for cannon making at Bersham, near Wrexham, North Wales.

1776 he married again, to Ann MacGregor, daughter of a Glasgow dye-maker, who survived him. She died in 1832.

1776 the first engines were installed and working in commercial enterprises. These first engines were used for pumps and produced only reciprocating motion. Orders began to pour in and for the next five years Watt was very busy installing more engines, mostly in Cornwall for pumping water out of mines.

The field of application of the invention was greatly widened only after Boulton urged Watt to convert the reciprocating motion of the piston to produce rotational power for grinding, weaving and milling. Although a crank seemed the logical and obvious solution to the conversion Watt and Boulton were stymied by a patent for the application of a crank to a steam engine, whose holder, John Steed, and associates proposed to cross-licence the external condenser. Watt adamantly opposed this and Boulton and Watt circumvented the patent by their sun and planet gear in 1781.

Over the next six years, he made a number of other improvements and modifications to the steam engine. A double acting engine, in which the steam acted alternately on the two sides of the piston was one. A throttle valve to control the power of the engine, and a centrifugal governor to keep it from "running away" were very important. He described methods for working the steam expansively. A Compound Engine, which expanded the steam in two or more cylinders was described.

Two more patents were granted for these in 1781 and 1782. Numerous other improvements that made for easier manufacture and installation were continually implemented. One of these included the use of the steam indicator which produced an informative plot of the pressure in the cylinder against its volume, which he kept as a trade secret. Another important invention, one of which Watt was most proud of, was the three-bar linkage which produced the straight line motion required for the cylinder rod and pump, from the connected rocking beam, whose end moves in a circular arc. This was patented in 1784. These improvements taken together produced an engine which was about five times as efficient in its use of fuel as the Newcomen engine.

Because of the danger of exploding boilers and the ongoing issues with leaks, Watt was long opposed to the use of high pressure steam - essentially all of his engines used steam at near atmospheric pressure.

1790 Watt moved into Heathfield, a house which he had built for himself. [1]. He lived there for 30 years. Annexed to the house, in the back yard, he built a forge, and upstairs in his 'garret' he fitted up a workshop

1794 the partners established Boulton, Watt and Sons to exclusively manufacture steam engines, and this became a large enterprise. By 1824 it had produced 1,164 steam engines having a total nominal horsepower of about 26,000. Boulton proved to be an excellent businessman, and both men eventually made fortunes.

James Watt was an enthusiastic inventor, with a fertile imagination that sometimes got in the way of finishing his works, because he could always see "just one more improvement." He was skilled with his hands, and was also able to perform systematic scientific measurements that could quantify the improvements he made and produce a greater understanding of the phenomenon he was working with.

Watt was a gentleman, greatly respected by other prominent men of the Industrial Revolution. He was an important member of the Lunar Society, and was a much sought after conversationalist and companion, always interested in expanding his horizons. He was a rather poor businessman, and especially hated bargaining and negotiating terms with those who sought to utilize the steam engine. Until he retired, he was always much concerned about his financial affairs, and was something of a worrier. His personal relationships with his friends and partners were always congenial and long-lasting.

1800 Watt retired aged 64, the same year that his fundamental patent and partnership with Boulton expired. The famous partnership was transferred to the men's sons, Matthew Boulton and James Watt (Junior). William Murdoch was made a partner and the firm prospered.

Watt continued to invent other things before and during his semi-retirement. He invented a new method of measuring distances by telescope, a device for copying letters, improvements in the oil lamp, a steam mangle and a machine for copying sculptures.

1807 Featured in William Walker et al’s painting of "Men of science living in 1807-8"[2]

He and his second wife travelled to France and Germany, and he purchased an estate in Wales, which he much improved.

1819 August 19th. He died in his home "Heathfield" in Handsworth, Staffordshire at the age of 83.[3]

As with many major inventions, there is some dispute as to whether Watt was the original sole inventor of some of the numerous inventions he patented. It is almost universally considered that he was the sole inventor of his most important invention, the Separate Condenser, although claims have also been made that Humphrey Gainsborough idependently came up with concept, and produced a working model. It was Watt's practice (from around the 1780s) to pre-empt others' ideas which were known to him by filing patents with the intention of securing credit for the invention for himself, and ensuring that no one else was able to practice it. As he states in a letter to Boulton of 17 August 1784: I have given such descriptions of engines for wheel carriages as I could do in the time and space I could allow myself; but it is very defective and can only serve to keep other people from similar patents.

Some argue that his prohibitions on his employee William Murdoch from working with high pressure steam on his steam locomotive experiments delayed its development. Watt, with his partner Matthew Boulton, battled against rival engineers such as Jonathan Hornblower who tried to develop engines which did not fall foul of his patents.

Watt patented the application of the sun and planet gear to steam in 1781 and a steam locomotive in 1784, both of which have strong claims to have been invented by his employee, William Murdoch. Watt himself described the provenance of the invention of the sun and planet gear in a letter to Boulton dated January 3, 1782: I have tried a model of one of my old plans of rotative engines revived and executed by W. M(urdock) and which merits being included in the specification as a fifth method...

The patent was never contested by Murdoch, who remained an employee of Boulton and Watt for most of his life, and Boulton and Watt's firm continued to use the sun and planet gear in their rotative engines, even long after the patent for the application of the crank expired in 1794.

James Watt's improved steam engine transformed the Newcomen Engine, which had hardly changed for fifty years, into a source of power that transformed the world of work, and was arguably the key innovation that brought forth the Industrial Revolution. A key feature of it was that it brought the engine out of the remote coal fields into factories where many mechanics, engineers, and even tinkerers were exposed to its virtues and limitations. It was a platform for generations of inventors to improve. It was clear to many that higher pressures produced in improved boilers would produce engines having even higher efficiency, and would lead to the revolution in transportation that was soon embodied in the locomotive and steamboat. It made possible the construction of new factories that, since they were not dependent on water power, could work the year round, and could be placed almost anywhere. Work was moved out of the cottages, resulting in economies of scale. Capital could work more efficiently, and manufacturing productivity greatly improved. It made possible the cascade of new sorts of machine tools that could be used to produce better machines, including that most remarkable of all of them, the Watt steam engine.

Watt was a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society of London. He was a member of the Batavian Society, and one of only eight Foreign Associates of the French Academy of Sciences.

Watt was buried in the grounds of St. Mary's Church, Handsworth, in Birmingham. Later expansion of the church, over his grave, means that his tomb is now buried inside the church. A statue of him, Boulton and Murdoch is in Birmingham, as are two other statues of him alone, one in Chamberlain Square, the other outside the Law Courts. He is also remembered by the Moonstones and a school is named in his honour, both in Birmingham. Many of his papers are in Birmingham Central Library. Matthew Boulton's home, Soho House, is now a museum, commemorating the work of both men.

1824 Proposed monument. Speakers included Humphry Davy, Matthew Boulton, William Huskisson, Sir J. Mackintosh, Mr. Brougham, Mr. Littleton, Mr. Peel, Earl of Aberdeen, Frankland Lewis, Lord Liverpool, Mr. Wedgwood and Mr. Wilberforce [4] [5] [6]

The location of James Watt's birth in Greenock is commemorated by a statue, close to his birthplace. Several locations and street names in Greenock recall him, most notably the Watt Memorial Library, which was begun in 1816 with Watt's donation of scientific books, and developed as part of the Watt Institution by his son (which ultimately became the James Watt College). Taken over by the local authority in 1974, the library now also houses the local history collection and archives of Inverclyde, and is dominated by a large seated statue in the vestibule. Watt is additionally commemorated by statuary in George Square, Glasgow and Princes Street, Edinburgh.

The History and Progress of Metallurgical Science

By Sir Robert Hadfield from The Engineer Journal 1923/11/09

"When thinking of the great Engineers of the past in Birmingham, the name that rises first and most prominently before us is that of James Watt. The fame of Watt's great work in the development of the steam engine is world-wide. His discovery of the method of the condensing steam in a vessel entirely separated from the cylinder occured in 1765. He took out his first patent in January, 1769, and this was renewed by Act of Parliament in 1775. Later in 1778, came his engine on the expansion principle, and his double-acting engine in 1781..." Read more.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer 1877/04/13
  2. National Portrait Gallery: [1]
  3. The Times, Saturday, Aug 28, 1819
  4. Mechanics Magazine 1824/06/26
  5. Mechanics Magazine 1824/07/17
  6. Mechanics Magazine 1824/07/24