James Watt FRS FRSE (30 January 1736 (19 January 1736 OS) – 25 August 1819) was a Scottish inventor, mechanical engineer, and chemist who improved on Thomas Newcomen‘s 1712 Newcomen steam engine with his Watt steam engine in 1776, which was fundamental to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in both his native Great Britain and the rest of the world.
Download this article about James Watt in MS Word Format.
While working as an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, Watt became interested in the technology of steam engines. He realized that contemporary engine designs wasted a great deal of energy by repeatedly cooling and reheating the cylinder. Watt introduced a design enhancement, the separate condenser, which avoided this waste of energy and radically improved the power, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of steam engines. Eventually, he adapted his engine to produce rotary motion, greatly broadening its use beyond pumping water.
Watt attempted to commercialize his invention but experienced great financial difficulties until he entered a partnership with Matthew Boulton in 1775. The new firm of Boulton and Watt was eventually highly successful and Watt became a wealthy man. In his retirement, Watt continued to develop new inventions though none was as significant as his steam engine work. He developed the concept of horsepower, and the SI unit of power, the watt, was named after him.
Early life and education of James Watt
James Watt was born on 19 January 1736 in Greenock, Renfrewshire, the eldest of the five surviving children of Agnes Muirhead (1703–1755) and James Watt (1698–1782). His mother came from a distinguished family, was well educated and said to be of forceful character, while his father was a shipwright, ship owner, and contractor, and served as the Greenock’s chief baillie in 1751. Watts parents were Presbyterians and strong Covenanters, however, despite a religious upbringing he later became a deist. Watt’s grandfather, Thomas Watt (1642–1734), was a teacher of mathematics, surveying and navigation, and Baillie to the Baron of Cartsburn.
Initially, Watt was educated at home by his mother, later going on to attend Greenock Grammar School. There he exhibited an aptitude for mathematics, while Latin and Greek failed to interest him. He is said to have suffered prolonged bouts of ill-health as a child and from frequent headaches all his life. After leaving school Watt worked in the workshops of his father’s businesses, demonstrating considerable dexterity and skill in creating engineering models. After his father suffered some unsuccessful business ventures Watt left Greenock to seek employment in Glasgow as a mathematical instrument maker.
Biography of James Watt
When he was 18 his mother died and his father’s health began to fail. Watt traveled to London and was able to obtain a period of training as an instrument maker for a year (1755/56), then returned to Scotland, settling in the major commercial city of Glasgow intent on setting up his own instrument-making business. He was still very young and have not had a full apprenticeship did not have the usual connections via a former master to establish himself as a journeyman instrument maker.
Watt was saved from this impasse by the arrival from Jamaica of astronomical instruments bequeathed by Alexander Macfarlane to the University of Glasgow, instruments that required expert attention. Watt restored them to working order and was remunerated. These instruments were eventually installed in the Macfarlane Observatory. Subsequently, three professors offered him the opportunity to set up a small workshop within the university. It was initiated in 1757 and two of the professors, the physicist, and chemist Joseph Black as well as the famed Adam Smith, became Watt’s friends
At first, he worked on maintaining and repairing scientific instruments used in the university, helping with demonstrations, and expanding the production of quadrants. He made and repaired brass reflecting quadrants, parallel rulers, scales, parts for telescopes, and barometers, among other things.
It is sometimes falsely stated that he struggled to establish himself in Glasgow due to opposition from the Trades House, but this myth has been thoroughly debunked by the historian, Lumsden. The records from this period are lost but it is known that he was able to work and trade completely normally as a skilled metal worker so the Incorporation of Hammermen must have been satisfied that he met their requirements for membership. It is also known that other people in the metal trades were pursued working without being members of the Incorporation well into the 19th century, so the rules were definitely being enforced when Watt was trading freely throughout the city.
In 1759 he formed a partnership with John Craig, an architect, and businessman, to manufacture and sell a line of products including musical instruments and toys. This partnership lasted for the next six years and employed up to sixteen workers. Craig died in 1765. One employee, Alex Gardner, eventually took over the business, which lasted into the twentieth century.
In 1764, Watt married his cousin Margaret (Peggy) Miller, with whom he had five children, two of whom lived to adulthood: James Jr. (1769–1848) and Margaret (1767–1796). His wife died in childbirth in 1772. In 1777 he was married again, to Ann MacGregor, daughter of a Glasgow dye-maker, with whom he had two children: Gregory (1777–1804), who became a geologist and mineralogist, and Janet (1779–1794). Ann died in 1832. Between 1777 and 1790 he lived in Regent Place, Birmingham.
James Watt and the kettle
There is a popular story that Watt was inspired to invent the steam engine by seeing a kettle boiling, the steam forcing the lid to rise and thus showing Watt the power of steam. This story is told in many forms; in some Watt is a young lad, in others he is older, sometimes it’s his mother’s kettle, sometimes his aunt’s. James Watt, of course, did not actually invent the steam engine, as the story implies, but dramatically improved the efficiency of the existing Newcomen engine by adding a separate condenser. This is difficult to explain to someone not familiar with concepts of heat and thermal efficiency. It appears that the story of Watt and the kettle was created, possibly by Watt’s son James Watt Jr., and persists because it is easy for children to understand and remember. In this light, it can be seen as akin to the story of Isaac Newton, the falling apple and his discovery of gravity.
Although it is often dismissed as a myth, like most good stories the story of James Watt and the kettle has a basis in fact. In trying to understand the thermodynamics of heat and steam James Watt carried out many laboratory experiments and his diaries record that in conducting these he used a kettle as a boiler to generate steam
Early experiments with steam
In 1759 Watt’s friend, John Robison called his attention to the use of steam as a source of motive power. The design of the Newcomen engine, in use for almost 50 years for pumping water from mines, had hardly changed from its first implementation. Watt began to experiment with steam, though he had never seen an operating steam engine. He tried constructing a model; it failed to work satisfactorily, but he continued his experiments and began to read everything he could about the subject. He came to realize the importance of latent heat—the thermal energy released or absorbed during a constant-temperature process—in understanding the engine, which, unknown to Watt, his friend Joseph Black had previously discovered some years before. Understanding of the steam engine was in a very primitive state, for the science of thermodynamics would not be formalized for nearly another 100 years.
In 1763, Watt was asked to repair a model Newcomen engine belonging to the university. Even after repair, the engine barely worked. After much experimentation, Watt demonstrated that about three-quarters of the thermal energy of the steam was being consumed in heating the engine cylinder on every cycle. This energy was wasted because later in the cycle cold water was injected into the cylinder to condense the steam to reduce its pressure. Thus by repeatedly heating and cooling the cylinder, the engine wasted most of its thermal energy rather than converting it into mechanical energy.
Watt’s critical insight, arrived at in May 1765, was 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 by surrounding it with a “steam jacket.” Thus very little energy was absorbed by the cylinder on each cycle, making more available to perform useful work. Watt had a working model later that same year.
Despite a potentially workable design, there were still substantial difficulties in constructing 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. Roebuck lived at Kinneil House in Bo’ness, during which time Watt worked at perfecting his steam engine in a cottage adjacent to the house. The shell of the cottage, and a very large part of one of his projects, still exist to the rear.
The principal difficulty was in machining the piston and cylinder. Ironworkers of the day were more like blacksmiths than modern machinists and were unable to produce the components with sufficient precision. Much capital was spent in pursuing a patent on Watt’s invention. Strapped for resources, Watt was forced to take up employment—first as a surveyor, then as a civil engineer—for eight years.
Through Boulton, Watt finally had access to some of the best ironworkers 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. Watt and Boulton formed a hugely successful partnership, Boulton and Watt, which lasted for the next twenty-five years.
In 1776, the first engines were installed and working in commercial enterprises. These first engines were used to power pumps and produced only reciprocating motion to move the pump rods at the bottom of the shaft. The design was commercially successful, and for the next five years, Watt was very busy installing more engines, mostly in Cornwall for pumping water out of mines.
These early engines were not manufactured by Boulton and Watt but were made by others according to drawings made by Watt, who served in the role of consulting engineer. The erection of the engine and its shakedown was supervised by Watt, at first, and then by men in the firm’s employ. These were large machines. The first, for example, had a cylinder with a diameter of some 50 inches and an overall height of about 24 feet and required the construction of a dedicated building to house it. Boulton and Watt charged an annual payment, equal to one-third of the value of the coal saved in comparison to a Newcomen engine performing the same work.
The field of application for the invention was greatly widened when 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 obvious solution to the conversion Watt and Boulton were stymied by a patent for this, whose holder, James Pickard, and associates proposed to cross-license the external condenser. Watt adamantly opposed this and they 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. He described methods for working the steam “expansively” (i.e., using steam at pressures well above atmospheric). A compound engine, which connected two or more engines 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 which Watt was most proud of, was the parallel motion which was essential in double-acting engines as it 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. A throttle valve to control the power of the engine, and a centrifugal governor, patented in 1788, to keep it from “running away” were very important. These improvements have taken together produced an engine which was up to five times as efficient in its use of fuel as the Newcomen engine.
Because of the danger of exploding boilers, which were in a very primitive stage of development, and the ongoing issues with leaks, Watt restricted his use of high-pressure steam – all of his engines used steam at near atmospheric pressure.
Edward Bull started constructing engines for Boulton and Watt in Cornwall in 1781. By 1792 he had started making engines of his own design, but which contained a separate condenser, and so infringed Watt’s patents. Two brothers, Jabez Carter Hornblower and Jonathan Hornblower Jnr also started to build engines about the same time. Others began to modify Newcomen engines by adding a condenser, and the mine owners in Cornwall became convinced that Watt’s patent could not be enforced. They started to withhold payments due to Boulton and Watt, which by 1795 had fallen. Of the total £21,000 (equivalent to £2,130,000 as of 2018) owed, only £2,500 had been received. Watt was forced to go to court to enforce his claims.
He first sued Bull in 1793. The jury found for Watt, but the question of whether or not the original specification of the patent was valid was left to another trial. In the meantime, injunctions were issued against the infringers, forcing their payments of the royalties to be placed in escrow. The trial on determining the validity of the specifications which was held in the following year was inconclusive, but the injunctions remained in force and the infringers, except for Jonathan Hornblower, all began to settle their cases. Hornblower was soon brought to trial and the verdict of the four judges (in 1799) was decisively in favor of Watt. Their friend John Wilkinson, who had solved the problem of boring an accurate cylinder, was a particularly grievous case. He had erected about twenty engines without Boulton’s and Watts’ knowledge. They finally agreed to settle the infringement in 1796. Boulton and Watt never collected all that was owed them, but the disputes were all settled directly between the parties or through arbitration. These trials were extremely costly in both money and time but ultimately were successful for the firm.
Before 1780 there was no good method for making copies of letters or drawings. The only method sometimes used as a mechanical one using linked multiple pens. Watt at first experimented with improving this method but soon gave up on this approach because it was so cumbersome. He instead decided to try to physically transfer some ink from the front of the original to the back of another sheet, moistened with a solvent and pressed to the original. The second sheet had to be thin so that the ink could be seen through it when the copy was held up to the light, thus reproducing the original exactly.
Watt started to develop the process in 1779 and made many experiments to formulate the ink, select the thin paper, to devise a method for wetting the special thin paper, and to make a press suitable for applying the correct pressure to effect the transfer. All of these required much experimentation, but he soon had enough success to patent the process a year later. Watt formed another partnership with Boulton (who provided financing) and James Keir (to manage the business) in a firm called James Watt and Co. The perfection of the invention required much more development work before it could be routinely used by others, but this was carried out over the next few years. Boulton and Watt gave up their shares to their sons in 1794. It became a commercial success and was widely used in offices even into the twentieth century.
From an early age, Watt was very interested in chemistry. In late 1786, while in Paris, he witnessed an experiment by Berthollet in which he reacted hydrochloric acid with manganese dioxide to produce chlorine. He had already found that an aqueous solution of chlorine could bleach textiles, and had published his findings, which aroused great interest among many potential rivals. When Watt returned to Britain, he began experiments along these lines with hopes of finding a commercially viable process. He discovered that a mixture of salt, manganese dioxide, and sulphuric acid could produce chlorine, which Watt believed might be a cheaper method. He passed the chlorine into a weak solution of alkali and obtained a turbid solution that appeared to have good bleaching properties. He soon communicated these results to James McGregor, his father-in-law, who was a bleacher in Glasgow. Otherwise, he tried to keep his method a secret.
With McGregor and his wife Annie, he started to scale up the process, and in March 1788, McGregor was able to bleach 1500 yards of cloth to his satisfaction. About this time Berthollet discovered the salt and sulphuric acid process and published it so it became public knowledge. Many others began to experiment with improving the process, which still had many shortcomings, not the least of which was the problem of transporting the liquid product. Watt’s rivals soon overtook him in developing the process, and he dropped out of the race. It was not until 1799 when Charles Tennant patented a process for producing solid bleaching powder (calcium hypochlorite) that it became a commercial success.
By 1794 Watt had been chosen by Thomas Beddoes to manufacture apparatus to produce, clean and store gases for use in the new Pneumatic Institution at Hotwells in Bristol. Watt continued to experiment with various gases for several years, but by 1797 the medical uses for the “factitious airs” had come to a dead end
The personality of James Watt
Watt combined theoretical knowledge of science with the ability to apply it practically. Humphry Davy said of him “Those who consider James Watt only as a great practical mechanic form a very erroneous idea of his character; he was equally distinguished as a natural philosopher and a chemist, and his inventions demonstrate his profound knowledge of those sciences, and that peculiar characteristic of genius, the union of them for practical application”.
He was 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. His personal relationships with his friends and partners were always congenial and long-lasting.
Watt was a prolific correspondent. During his years in Cornwall, he wrote long letters to Boulton several times per week. He was averse to publishing his results in, for example, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, however, and instead preferred to communicate his ideas in patents. He was an excellent draughtsman.
He was a rather poor businessman, and especially hated bargaining and negotiating terms with those who sought to use the steam engine. In a letter to William Small in 1772, Watt confessed that “he would rather face a loaded cannon than settle an account or make a bargain.” Until he retired, he was always much concerned about his financial affairs and was something of a worrier. His health was often poor and he suffered frequent nervous headaches and depression.
At first, the partnership made the drawing and specifications for the engines and supervised the work to erect it on the customer’s property. They produced almost none of the parts themselves. Watt did most of his work at his home in Harper’s Hill in Birmingham, while Boulton worked at the Soho Manufactory. Gradually the partners began to actually manufacture more and more of the parts, and by 1795 they purchased a property about a mile away from the Soho manufactory, on the banks of the Birmingham Canal, to establish a new foundry for the manufacture of the engines. The Soho Foundry formally opened in 1796 at a time when Watt’s sons, Gregory and James Jr. were heavily involved in the management of the enterprise. In 1800, the year of Watt’s retirement, the firm made a total of 41 engines.
Watt retired in 1800, the same year that his fundamental patent and partnership with Boulton expired. The famous partnership was transferred to the men’s sons, Matthew Robinson Boulton, and James Watt Jr. Longtime firm engineer William Murdoch was soon made a partner and the firm prospered.
Watt continued to invent other things before and during his semi-retirement. Within his home in Handsworth, Staffordshire, Watt made use of a garret room as a workshop, and it was here that he worked on many of his inventions. Among other things, he invented and constructed several machines for copying sculptures and medallions which worked very well, but which he never patented. One of the first sculptures he produced with the machine was a small head of his old professor friend Adam Smith. He maintained his interest in civil engineering and was a consultant on several significant projects. He proposed, for example, a method for constructing a flexible pipe to be used for pumping water under the Clyde at Glasgow.
He and his second wife traveled to France and Germany, and he purchased an estate in mid-Wales at Doldowlod House, one mile south of Llanwrthwl, which he much improved. In 1816 he took a trip on the paddle-steamer Comet, a product of his inventions, to revisit his home town of Greenock.
He died on 25 August 1819 at his home “Heathfield Hall” near Handsworth in Staffordshire (now part of Birmingham) at the age of 83. He was buried on 2 September in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, Handsworth. The church has since been extended and his grave is now inside the church.
Family of James Watt
On 16 July 1764 married his cousin Margaret Miller (d. 1773), together they had two children, Margaret (1767-1796) and James (1769-1848). In 1791 their daughter married James Miller. their son did not marry. In September 1773 while Watt was working in the Scottish Highlands he learned that his wife Margaret, who was pregnant with their third child, was seriously ill. He immediately returned home but found that his wife had died and their child was stillborn. In 1775 he married Ann MacGregor.
He was Initiated into Scottish Freemasonry in The Glasgow Royal Arch Lodge, No.77, in 1763. The Lodge ceased to exist in 1810. A Masonic Lodge was named after him in his home town of Glasgow – Lodge James Watt, No.1215.
William Murdoch joined Boulton and Watt in 1777. At first, he worked in the pattern shop in Soho, but soon he was erecting engines in Cornwall. He became an important part of the firm and made many contributions to its success. A very able man, he made several important inventions on his own. John Griffiths, who wrote a biography of him in 1992, has argued that Watt’s discouraging Murdoch from working with high-pressure steam (Watt rightly believed that boilers of the time would be unsafe) on his steam road locomotive experiments delayed its development.
James 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 Murdoch. The patent was never contested by Murdoch, however, 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 crank expired in 1794. Murdoch was made a partner of the firm in 1810, where he remained until his retirement 20 years later at the age of 76. Read about Henry Ford.