James Watt- A Famous Scottish Pioneer of the Steam Engine
James Watt (1736 - 19 August 1819) was a Scottish inventor and engineer whose improvements to the steam engine were fundamental to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution.
James Watt was born on the 19th January 1736 in Greenock, overlooking the Firth of Clyde. James Watt was the son of a wealthy shipwright, ship owner and contractor. As a child Watt was unhealthy which meant that he could not attend school regularly and was mostly taught at home by his mother. He also spent much of his time learning engineering skills and making models in his father's workshop.
At the age of 17 James suffered the loss of his mother and his father's business started to suffer. At an early age James had shown an aptitude for mathematics and he moved to London to study mathematical instrument-making. He remained there for a year and then returned to Glasgow with the intention of setting up his own instrument-making business. Unfortunately Watt had not served an apprenticeship of seven years) and, even though there were no other mathematical instrument-makers in Scotland, the Glasgow Guild of Hammermen ( covering any artisans using hammers) blocked his application. Luckily Watt was saved from further embarrassment by the professors of the University of Glasgow, in particular the physicist and chemist Joseph Black who arranged for Watt to set up a workshop within the University. Watt's workshop was established in 1757 and Joseph Black became Watt's friend and mentor.
James Watt began his experiments with steam in the early 1760s. He learned that the University owned a model of a Newcomen engine which had proved problematic and had been sent to London. Watt managed to convince the University to have the engine returned and, in 1763, he managed to make it work but not very well (80% of the energy was wasted). After much consideration he solved the problem by separating the condenser from the cylinder and enclosing the cylinder in a steam jacket and by 1765 he had the model working efficiently.
Watt now set about creating a full scale model and, with the backing of friends such as Joseph Black and John Roebuck (founder of Carron Iron Works, near Falkirk) he was able to patent the design (by act of Parliament). Unfortunately the expense of the patent meant that there was little money left to finance the production which required precision engineering. Watt formed a partnership with Roebuck and worked as surveyor for eight years to help finance the project. Roebuck went bankrupt and Matthew Boulton (owner of the Soho foundry works near Birmingham) aquired the patent rights.
A partnership between James Watt and Matthew Boulton (Boulton & Watt) was formed which allowed Watt access to some of the finest engineers of the day. By 1776 they had managed to produce the first engines and installed them with great success. However the engines were rather limited in their use and were used mainly as pumps as they were limited to a reciprocating motion. To produce a more useful rotational power, which would enable grinding, weaving etc., a crank was required. Unfortunately this had already been patented and the owner demanded a cross-license with Watt's external condensor for use of his patented crank. It would take Watt until 1781 and his patent of the "sun and planet gear" that a solution was found (or rather circumvent John Steed's patent of the crank!).
[It has been said that Watt's protection of his patents, and his apparent circumvention of those owned by others, stiffled and delayed development. In response it could be said that, even when the patent for the crank expired, Watt continued to use his sun and planet method. His early refusal to use pressurized steam was based upon safety and the fear of exploding boilers and the problems of leaks. ]
The following years saw many improvements to Watt's original design with the total improvements being equal to an engine which was about five times as efficient in its use of fuel as the Newcomen engine. The business did very well and both men became wealthy. Watt retired from the business in 1800 but continued to invent creating 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 sculpture.
James Watt died in his home "Heathfield" in Handsworth, Staffordshire on 25th August, 1819 at the age of 83. He was buried in the grounds of St. Mary's Church, Handsworth, in Birmingham.
Today we are left with constant remiders of the contributions made by James Watt. The term "horesepower" was first used by Watt and the SI unit of power, the Watt, is named after him. There are statues of him at Westminster Abbey, Brimingham and in Greenock. He is also remembered in the name of the Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and James Watt College, Greenock. There are over 50 roads or streets in the UK named after him and Matthew Boulton's home, Soho House, is now a museum, commemorating the work of both men.