James Watt's Steam Engine Facts: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Angela Burke

Angela has fifteen years of teaching experience, primarily in Special Education and Gifted Education at the K-12 level. She has a B.A. in Elementary Education and Special Education, K-12. In addition, she has a M.A.Ed. in Special Education with an emphasis in Gifted, K-12. Angela has had several research and review articles published in education journals.

Do you know how a steam engine works? In this lesson, discover why James Watt's steam engine was special. Find out how this steam engine changed the world.

The Steam Engine

How do you get from place to place? Chances are good that you ride in a car, bus, train or even airplane.

A long time ago, the only way people could travel was by foot or horse. This made traveling difficult. However, after the invention of the steam engine, people could travel much faster.

The steam engine is a type of machine that uses steam to generate power. James Watt was a Scottish inventor who improved older models of the steam engine, making them easier for people to use. Let's discover more about what James did.

Portrait of James Watt
James Watt

Expensive

Have you ever watched your mom or dad cook pasta? A pot of water is placed on the stove and heated until the water begins to boil. As the water boils, steam is released. Steam is water in the form of a gas.

This is similar to what a steam engine does, only on a much larger scale. Coal is burned to heat water, turning it into steam. But instead of letting the steam disappear into the air, it is captured and used to power a machine. Train locomotives, ships and factory machinery were made with steam engines during the 1800s.

Unfortunately, the first steam engines, invented by Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen, needed to burn a lot of coal to run, which made them expensive. James Watt came up with a better way to capture steam.

New and Improved

So how did James Watt improve the steam engine? It all began in 1764 when James was given a Newcomen steam engine to repair. James thought the engine wasted a terrible amount of heat. The biggest problem was that only one chamber, or tank, was used. This tank had to be heated as steam came into it, and then cooled.

Watt Steam Engine
Engine

James came up with the idea of having two separate chambers. One chamber would always be hot so it could receive steam. The second chamber would remain cool so that the steam traveling from the first tank could be converted back into water. This model of steam engine could continue working day and night and prevented a lot of steam from being wasted.

In 1769, James Watt received a patent for his improved version of the steam engine. A patent is a right given to an inventor by the government that prevents other people from stealing an idea and making or selling the invention without the inventor's permission.

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