Youre here: Home » eDigg Biographies » Biographies G-M » James Watt


» Biography Home

» Biographies A-F

» Biographies G-M

» Biographies N-S

» Biographies T-Z

James Watt

      James Watt was born at Greenock, January 19, 1736. He was the fourth child in a family which, for a hundred years, had more or less professed mathematics and navigation. His constitution was delicate, and his mental powers were precocious. He was distinguished from an early age by his candor and truthfulness; and his father, to ascertain the cause of any of his boyish quarrels, used to say, "Let James speak; from him I always hear the truth." James also showed his constructive tastes equally early, experimenting on his playthings with a set of small carpenter's tools, which his father had given him. At six he was still at home. "Mr. Watt," said a friend to the father, "you ought to send that boy to school, and not let him trifle away his time at home." "Look what he is doing before you condemn him," was the reply. The visitor then observed the child had drawn mathematical lines and figures on the hearth, and was engaged in a process of calculation. On putting questions to him, he was astonished at his quickness and simplicity. "Forgive me," said he, "this child's education has not been neglected; this is no common child."

      Watt's cousin, Mrs. Marian Campbell, describes his inventive capacity as a story-teller, and details an incident of his occupying himself with the steam of a tea-kettle, and by means of a cup and a spoon making an early experiment in the condensation of steam. To this incident she probably attached more importance than was its due, from reverting to it when illustrated by her after-recollections. Out of this story, reliable or not in the sense ascribed to it, M. Arago obtained an oratorical point for an eloge, which he delivered to the French Institute. Watt may or may not have been occupied as a boy with the study of the condensation of steam while he was playing with the kettle. The story suggests a possibility, nothing more; though it has been made the foundation of a grave announcement, the subject of a pretty picture, and will ever remain a basis for suggestive speculation.

      Watt was sent to a commercial school, where he was provided with a fair outfit of Latin and with some elements of Greek; but mathematics he studied with greater zest, and with proportionate success. By the time he was fifteen, he had read twice, with grave attention, Gravesande's "Elements of Natural Philosophy;" and "while under his father's roof he went on with various chemical experiments, repeating them again and again, until satisfied of their accuracy from his own observations." He even made himself a small electrical machine, about 1750-53; no mean performance at that date, since, according to Priestley's "History of Electricity," the Leyden phial itself was not invented until the years 1745-46.

      His pastime lay chiefly in his father's marine store, among the sails and ropes, the blocks and tackle: or by the old gray gateway of the Mansion House on the hill above Greenock, where he would loiter away hours by day, and at night lie down on his back and watch the stars through the trees.

      At this early age Watt suffered from continual and violent headaches, which often affected his nervous system for many days, even weeks; and he was similarly afflicted throughout his long life. He seldom rose early, but accomplished more in a few hours' study than ordinary minds do in many days. He was never in a hurry, and always had leisure to give to his friends, to poetry, romance, and the publications of the day; he read indiscriminately almost every new book he could procure. He assisted his father in his business, and soon learned to construct with his own hands several of the articles required in the way of his parent's trade; and by means of a small forge, set up for his own use, he repaired and made various kinds of instruments, and converted, by the way, a large silver coin into a punch-ladle, as a trophy of his early skill as a metal-smith. From this aptitude for ingenious handiwork, and in accordance with his own deliberate choice, it was decided that he should proceed to qualify himself for following the trade of a mathematical instrument maker. He accordingly went to Glasgow, in June, 1754, and from there, after a year's stay, he proceeded for better instruction to London.

Watt discovering the Condensation of Steam.

      On Watt's arrival in the metropolis, he sought a situation, but in vain, and he was beginning to despond, when he obtained work with one John Morgan, an instrument-maker, in Finch Lane, Cornhill. Here he gradually became proficient in making quadrants, parallel rulers, compasses, theodolites, etc., until, at the end of a year's practice, he could make "a brass sector with a French joint, which is reckoned as nice a piece of framing work as is in the trade." During this interval he contrived to live upon eight shillings a week, exclusive of his lodging. His fear of the press-gang and his bodily ailments, however, led to his quitting London in August, 1756, and returning to Scotland, after investing twenty guineas in additional tools.

      At Glasgow, through the intervention of Dr. Dick, he was first employed in cleaning and repairing some of the instruments belonging to the college; and, after some difficulty, he received permission to open a shop within the precincts as "mathematical instrument maker to the University." Here Watt prospered, pursuing alike his course of manual labor and of mental study, and especially extending his acquaintance with physics; endeavoring, as he said, "to find out the weak side of nature, and to vanquish her." About this time he contrived an ingenious machine for drawing in perspective; and from fifty to eighty of these instruments, manufactured by him, were sent to different parts of the world. He had now procured the friendship of Dr. Black and another University worthy, John Robison, who, in stating the circumstances of his first introduction to Watt, says: "I saw a workman, and expected no more; but was surprised to find a philosopher as young as myself, and always ready to instruct me."

      It was some time in 1764 that the professor of natural philosophy in the University desired Watt to repair a pretty model of Newcomen's steam-engine. Like everything which came into Watt's hands, it soon became an object of most serious study.

      The interesting little model, as altered by the hand of Watt, was long placed beside the noble statue of the engineer in the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow. Watt himself, when he had got the bearings of his invention, could think of nothing else but his machine, and addressed himself to Dr. Roebuck, of the Carron Iron-works, with the view of its practical introduction to the world. A partnership ensued, but the connection did not prove satisfactory. Watt went on with his experiments, and in September, 1766, wrote to a friend: "I think I have laid up a stock of experience that will soon pay me for the trouble it has cost me." Yet it was between eight and nine years before that invaluable experience was made available, so as either to benefit the public or repay the inventor; and a much longer term elapsed before it was possible for that repayment to be reckoned in the form of substantial profit.

      Watt now began to practise as a land-surveyor and civil engineer. His first engineering work was a survey for a canal to unite the Forth and Clyde, in furtherance of which he had to appear before the House of Commons. His consequent journey to London was still more important, for then it was that he saw for the first time the great manufactory which Boulton had established at Soho, and of which he was afterward himself to be the guiding intelligence. In the meantime, among his other performances, he invented a micrometer for measuring distances; and, what is still more remarkable, he entertained the idea of moving canal-boats by the steam-engine through the instrumentality of a spiral oar, which as nearly as possible coincides with the screw-propeller of our day.

      Watt's negotiations for partnership with Boulton were long and tedious. Dr. Roebuck's creditors concurred because, curiously enough, none of them valued Watt's engine at a farthing. Watt himself now began to despair, and his health failed; yet in 1774, when he had removed to Birmingham, he wrote to his father: "The fire-engine I have invented is now going, and answers much better than any other that has yet been made; and I expect that the invention will be very beneficial to me."

      A long series of experimental trials was, nevertheless, requisite before the engine could be brought to such perfection as to render it generally available to the public, and therefore profitable to its manufacturers. In January, 1775, six years of the patent had elapsed, and there seemed some probability of the remaining eight running out as fruitlessly. An application which was made for the extension of its term was unexpectedly opposed by the eloquence of Burke; but the orator and his associates failed, and the extension was accorded by Act of Parliament.

      The first practical employment of Watt's engines to any considerable extent was in the mining districts of Cornwall, where he himself was, in consequence, compelled to spend much of his time subsequent to 1775. Here he had to contend not only with natural obstacles in the dark abysses of deeply flooded mines, but with a rude and obstinate class of men as deeply flooded by inveterate prejudices. The result in the way of profit was not, however, satisfactory, notwithstanding the service to the mining interest was enormous. "It appears," says Watt, in 1780, "by our books, that Cornwall has hitherto eat up all the profits we have drawn from it, and all we have got by other places, and a good sum of our own money to the bargain."

      At this stage Watt himself was more fertile in mechanical inventions than in any other portion of his busy life. Taking his patents in their chronological order, the first (subsequent to that of 1769) was "For a new method of copying letters and other writings expeditiously," by means of copying presses. Of the same date was his invention of a machine "for drying linen and muslin by steam." On October 25, 1781, he took out his third patent (the second of the steam-engine series), "for certain new methods of applying the vibrating or reciprocating motion of steam or fire engines, to produce a continued rotative motion round an axis or centre, and thereby to give motion to the wheels of mills or other machines." One of these methods was that commonly known as the sun-and-planet wheels; they were five in all. A favorite employment of his in the workshops at Soho, in the later months of 1783 and earlier ones of 1784, was to teach his steam-engine, now become nearly as docile as it was powerful, to work a tilt-hammer for forging iron and making steel. "Three hundred blows per minute--a thing never done before," filled him, as his biographer says, with feelings of excusable pride. Another patent in the steam-engine series, taken out in 1784, contained, besides other methods of converting a circular or angular motion into a perpendicular or rectilineal motion, the well-known and much-admired parallel motion, and the application of the steam-engine to give motion to wheel-carriages for carrying persons and goods. To ascertain the exact number of strokes made by an engine during a given time, and thereby to check the cheats of the Cornish miners, Watt also invented the "Counter," with its several indexes. Among his leading improvements, introduced at various periods, were the throttle-valve, the application of the governor, the barometer or float, the steam-gauge, and the indicator. The term during which he seems to have thus combined the greatest maturity with the greatest activity of intellect, and the portion of his life which they comprehended, was from his fortieth to his fiftieth year. Yet it was a term of increased suffering from his acute sick-headaches, and remarkable for the infirmities over which he triumphed; notwithstanding, he himself complained of his "stupidity and want of the inventive faculty."

      Watt's chemical studies in 1783, and the calculations they involved from experiments made by foreign chemists, induced him to make a proposal for a philosophical uniformity of weights and measures; and he discussed this proposal with Priestley and Magellan. While Watt was examining the constituent parts of water, he had opportunities of familiar intercourse not only with Priestley, but with Withering, Keir, Edgeworth, Galton, Darwin, and his own partner, Boulton--all men above the average for their common interest in scientific inquiries. Dr. Parr frequently attended their meetings, and they kept up a correspondence with Sir William Herschel, Sir Joseph Banks, Dr. Solander, and Afzelius. Mrs. Schimmelpenninck, who was greatly given to physiognomical studies, has left us this picture of Watt at this period.

      "Mr. Boulton was a man to rule society with dignity; Mr. Watt, to lead the contemplative life of a deeply introverted and patiently observant philosopher. He was one of the most complete specimens of the melancholic temperament. His head was generally bent forward, or leaning on his hand in meditation; his shoulders stooping, and his chest falling in; his limbs lank and unmuscular, and his complexion sallow. His intellectual development was magnificent; comparison and causality immense, with large ideality and constructiveness, individuality, an enormous concentrativeness and caution.

      "He had a broad Scottish accent; gentle, modest, and unassuming manners; yet, when he entered a room, men of letters, men of science, nay, military men, artists, ladies, even little children, thronged round him. Ladies would appeal to him on the best means of devising grates, curing smoky chimneys, warming their houses, and obtaining fast colors. I can speak from experience of his teaching me how to make a dulcimer and improve a Jew's harp."

      In the year 1786, Watt and Boulton visited Paris, on the invitation of the French Government, to superintend the erection of certain steam-engines, and especially to suggest improvements in the great hydraulic machine of Marly, which Watt himself designates a "venerable" work. In Paris Watt made many acquaintances, including Lavoisier, Laplace, Fourcroy, and others scarcely less eminent; and while here he discussed with Berthollet a new method of bleaching by chlorides, an invention of the latter which Watt subsequently introduced into England.

      Meanwhile Watt had vigilantly to defend his patents at home, which were assailed by unworthy and surreptitious rivals as soon as it was proved that they were pecuniarily valuable. Some of the competing engines, as Watt himself described them, were simply asthmatic. "Hornblower's, at Radstock, was obliged to stand still once every ten minutes to snore and snort." "Some were like Evan's mill, which was a gentlemanly mill; it would go when it had nothing to do, but it refused to work." The legal proceedings, both in equity and at common law, which now became necessary, were numerous. One bill of costs, from 1796 to 1800, amounted to between #5,000 and #6,000; and the mental and bodily labor, the anxiety and vexation, which were superadded, involved a fearful tax on the province of Watt's discoveries.

      With the year 1800 came the expiration of the privilege of the patent of 1769, as extended by the statute of 1775; and also the dissolution of the original copartnership of Messrs. Boulton and Watt, then of five-and-twenty years' duration. The contract was renewed by their sons, the business having become so profitable that Watt and his children were provided with a source of independent income; and at the age of sixty-four the great inventor had personally realized some of the benefits he contemplated.

      Henceforth Watt's ingenuity became excursive, discretionary, almost capricious; but in every phase and form it continued to be beneficent. In 1808 he founded a prize in Glasgow College, as an acknowledgment of "the many favors that learned body had conferred upon him." In 1816 he made a donation to the town of Greenock, "to form the beginning of a scientific library" for the instruction of its young men. Nor, amid such donations, were others wanting on his part, such as true religion prescribes, to console the poor and relieve the suffering.

      In 1816, on a visit to Greenock, Watt made a voyage in a steamboat to Rothsay and back again. In the course of this experimental trip he pointed out to the engineer of the boat the method of "backing" the engine. With a foot-rule he demonstrated to him what he meant. Not succeeding, however, he at last, under the impulse of the ruling passion (and we must remember he was then eighty), threw off his overcoat, and putting his hand to the engine himself, showed the practical application of his lecture. Previously to this, the "backstroke" of the steamboat engine was either unknown or not generally known. The practice was to stop the engine entirely a considerable time before the vessel reached the point of mooring, in order to allow for the gradual and natural diminution of her speed.

      With regard to the application of steam power to locomotion on land, it is remarkable enough that, when Watt's attention was first directed, by his friend Robison, to the steam-engine, "he (Robison) at that time drew out an idea of applying the power to the moving of wheel-carriages." "But the scheme," adds Watt, "was not matured, and was soon abandoned on his going abroad."

      In 1769, however, when he heard that a linen-draper, one Moore, had taken out a patent for moving wheel-carriages by steam, he replied: "If linen-draper Moore does not use my engine to drive his chaises, he can't drive them by steam." In the specification of his patent of 1784, he even described the principles and construction of "steam-engines which are applied to give motion to wheel-carriages for removing persons or goods, or other matters, from place to place," and in 1786, Watt himself had a steam-carriage "of some size under hand;" but his most developed plan was to move such carriages "on a hard smooth plane," and there is no evidence to show that he ever anticipated the union of the rail and wheel.

      Among Watt's mechanical recreations, soon after the date of the last of his steam-engine patents, were four plans of making lamps, which he describes in a letter to Argand; and for a long time lamps were made at Soho upon his principles, which gave a light surpassing, both in steadiness and brilliancy, anything of the kind that had appeared. About a year after, in 1788, he made "a pretty instrument for determining the specific gravities of liquids," having, he says to Dr. Black, improved on a hint he had taken.

      Watt also turned his "idle thoughts" toward the construction of an arithmetical machine, but he does not appear ever to have prosecuted this design further than by mentally considering the manner in which he could make it perform the processes of multiplication and division.

      Early in the present century Watt devised, for the Glasgow water-works, to bring pure spring-water across the Clyde, an articulated suction-pipe, with joints formed on the principle of those in a lobster's tail, and so made capable of accommodating itself to all the actual and possible bendings at the bottom of the river. This pipe was, moreover, executed at Soho from his plans, and was found to succeed perfectly.

      Watt describes, as his hobby, a machine to copy sculpture, suggested to him by an implement he had seen and admired in Paris in 1802, where it was used for tracing and multiplying the dies of medals. He foresaw the possibility of enlarging its powers so as to make it capable of working even on wood and marble, to do for solid masses and in hard materials what his copying machine of 1782 had already done for drawings and writings impressed upon flat surfaces of paper--to produce, in fact, a perfect fac-simile of the original model. He worked at this machine most assiduously, and his "likeness lathe," as he termed it, was set up in a garret, which, with all its mysterious contents, its tools, and models included, have been carefully preserved as he left them.

      It is gratifying to find that the charm of Watt's presence was not dimmed by age. "His friends," says Lord Jeffrey, speaking of a visit which he paid to Scotland when upward of eighty, "in that part of the country never saw him more full of intellectual vigor and colloquial animation, never more delightful or more instructive." It was then also that Sir Walter Scott, meeting him "surrounded by a little band of northern literati," saw and heard what he felt he was never to see or hear again--"the alert, kind, benevolent old man, his talents and fancy overflowing on every subject, with his attention alive to everyone's question his information at everyone's command." Campbell, the poet, who saw him later, in the beginning of 1819 (he was then eighty-three), describes him as so full of anecdote, that he spent one of the most amusing days he had ever had with him. Lord Brougham, later still, in the summer of the same year, found his instructive conversation and his lively and even playful manner unchanged. But in the autumn of this year, on August 19th, he expired tranquilly at his house at Heathfield. He was buried at Handsworth. A tribute to his memory was but tardily rendered by the nation.

      Jeffrey and Arago added more elaborate tributes to Watt's genius; and Wordsworth has declared that he looked upon him, considering his magnitude and universality, "as perhaps the most extraordinary man that this country has ever produced." His noblest monument is, however, his own work.

Privacy Policy
Copyright © 1999-2008 All rights reserved.