James Watt: Biography, Inventions & Accomplishments

Instructor: Thomas Davis

Thomas has taught high school age students for 34 years, undergraduate 12 years, and graduate courses for the last 8 years. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.

James Watt was a Scottish mechanical engineer and inventor. Today, he is most remembered for his technological innovations in the development steam engine.

One Man's Accomplishments

James Watt was a prolific scientist of the early industrial revolution. His improvements to Newcomen's steam engine were vital to its practical use in industry. The improvements included a system to condense steam, a throttle to regulate the output of the engine, and the sun and planet system that created a reciprocating motion not tied to a piston firing. Among Watt's other notable contributions were breakthroughs in the science of copying and textile bleaching. The International System unit of power is named the watt in his honor. One watt is equal to one joule per second.

Before we go in-depth into Watt's inventions, however, let's first go over his beginnings.

James Watt
James Watt

James Watt, Mechanical Wizard

James Watt was born in Greenock, Scotland, in 1736. As you might expect, James excelled in mathematics at school. Young James looked up to his father, a carpenter who built a myriad of products, from furniture to ships. From his experience around shipbuilding, James learned about technical instruments like compasses and telescopes. When he was a teenager, he decided that he wanted to make mechanical instruments.

When Watt turned 18, he moved to Glasgow and worked with Robert Dick. Dick was a University of Glasgow scientist. Dick suggested that James go to London and get specific training from experts. After a difficult search, Watt finally found an instrument maker who would teach him, John Morgan.

Watt finished his training in a year and returned to Glasgow. Since he'd been trained in London, he was ignored by most professionals in Glasgow. However, the University professors were so impressed with his ability they gave him room to work on campus. Shortly after, they created his position of 'Mathematical Instrument Maker to the University.'

This workshop belonged to Watt in Glasgow
This workshop belonged to Watt in Glasgow

First Real Challenge

Professor John Anderson introduced Watt to his greatest challenge -- to figure out why the full scale model of Newcomen's engine needed so much steam. The steam engine would stall frequently. Watt found the flaw instantly. He discovered that the boiler was too small and could not provide the steam needed to reheat the cylinder.

The actual solution was much more difficult. Watt needed to condense the steam without cooling the engine. He made a makeshift piston and condenser using a syringe made of brass. When the syringe was filled with steam, he pumped water out of his condenser and cooled it. Problem solved.

Roebuck Invests in Watt

John Roebuck was a industrialist who worked in coal. After hearing Watt out, he agreed to finance Watt's development of an engine. Watt spent the next four years working, consumed by the project. Watt finally succeeded in getting a large engine to work long enough to get a patent. Roebuck financed the whole venture. He agreed to pay all of Watt's past debt in exchange for two-thirds of the profits from the new engine.

Matthew Boulton of Birmingham had a vision of putting the best craftsmen with the best equipment in one building. What he called a manufactory would eventually be called a factory. He felt the engine was a machine that could be used in his manufactory. Boulton bought the rights of Watt's work from Roebuck. He provided Watt with expert craftsmen with a great amount of experience. Watt kept working on the engine as well as other instruments.

Steam Engine 'New Twists'

In 1776, the engine was finally put into use by the Bentley Mining Company. The Boulton-Watt engine replaced a Newcomen engine. It stroked about 14 to 15 times a minute and was used to pump water out of a pit.

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