James Watt

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Remembered for: His improvements to the Newcomen steam engine, and as a key player in the Industrial Revolution. The watt — a unit of measurement of electrical and mechanical power — is named after him. So from Watt worked in London as a maker of mathematical instruments. Watt later returned to Scotland, and was hired privately by Glasgow University to repair their academic instruments. There, in the shop in which he worked, the scholar John Robinson introduced Watt to the science of steam. In around , Watt was given a model Newcomen engine to repair.

Upon realising it was inefficient, Watt set to work on improving the design: he ultimately devised a separate condensing chamber for the steam engine that prevented enormous losses of steam. He spent the next year working on and testing a model, but it continued to fail. The duo manufactured steam engines to huge demand from mine owners, distilleries, waterworks and paper, flour, cotton and iron mills, reportedly making money by charging a third of the cost of the coal that would have been used in the Newcomen model.

The pair also worked on the engine used in the first commercial steam-powered ship in America in The pair set up one of the first benefit societies for their workmen, and became leading figures in the industrial revolution. Boulton and Watt steam engine workshops, Soho, near Birmingham, 18th century. In , after working together for a quarter of a century, both Watt and Boulton retired, handing over their business to their sons.

Watt spent his retirement years focusing on his research, and he patented a number of other inventions including the steam indicator, which records the steam pressure inside the engine, and the rotary engine. Watt died on 25 August , aged 83, and was buried in Birmingham alongside his business partner, Matthew Boulton. At the start of the 18th century, in the poor Scottish seaport town of Greenock, the grandfather of James Watt sets up a school of mathematics.

His son becomes a prosperous shipbuilder and provider of shipping products. It attracts much business: And the hand in marriage of Agnes Muirhead, a gentle lady descended from a long line of noble Scots.

Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

His father gives him his own small tool kit. His hobbies include deconstructing and reassembling his toys. He sometimes creates new ones out of the parts. A family anecdote has it that he is chided for his fascination with a steaming kettle. It will be his combination of observation and practical application that will revolutionise Britain, and the world.

James has to learn a trade to survive. In , aged 17, his beloved mother dies.


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So in the summer of , James sets off spending twelve days on horseback to reach London and its promise of wealth. After working himself until he becomes ill, he returns to Glasgow in autumn Watt hopes that as he is literally the only mathematical instrument maker in the whole of Scotland, he will find work.

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But, the Guild of Hammermen representing anyone who works with metal blocks his employment. They state he cannot work until he has done more apprentice time.

Glasgow University renames engineering school after James Watt

It will be not the last time that Watt has to wait for the world to catch up with him. Thankfully, university professors employ him privately to repair their academic instruments.


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  • He supplements this income by making and selling everything from spectacles to fiddles, flutes and guitars. Having no musical ability, he studies the science of harmony. The precision products he creates are considered better instruments than those crafted by music specialists. More of an engineer than entrepreneur, he sets up business with John Craig and over the next six years they manufacture musical instruments and toys. In , Watt is introduced to John later, Professor Robinson. Robinson will introduce him to the science of steam.


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    • As the university has little to none of the necessary apparatus and appliances necessary to experiment with steam, Watt makes them. In the university ask him to repair one of their Newcomen steam engines. This steam powered engine was invented by English engineers Savery and Newcomen. It is the first practical device to use steam power to produce mechanical work. With little design improvements in over a half a century, Watt sees a lot of potential, with huge profits to be made.

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      But most of the literature available on the subject is in French and Italian. So Watt learns those languages. Only then does he find out that another resident professor, Robert Black, has already discovered the theory.

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      He has in fact, been teaching it to his students for several years. The two pair up. Black will become both an academic and financial support. His other partnership, in , is to his cousin Margaret Miller.

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      They will have five children but only two will make it to adulthood. To achieve the mechanical motion its parts the piston and chamber were constantly being cooled and heated. More energy was being expended on this than on delivering mechanical force. He envisions a separate chamber in which the steam can condense.

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