James Watt was born January 19th,1736 at Greenock and at this time no one would
even begin to imagine his effect on the Industrial Revolution. When James was fifteen
years old he had read books about and become accustomed to Philosophy (kind of like
modern physics). He had also completed many of his own chemical experiments and even
started to produce and construct his own products such as a small electronic device that
really surprised his friends.
In 1755 he set out on horseback and arrived in London after about two
weeks. He tried to get a job in the instrumentation field although the shopkeepers could
not give him a job as he did not do an apprenticeship and was too old. Finally though he
found John Morgan of a company called Cornhill who agreed to bend the rules and offer
an apprenticeship for a year. He stuck to it hard and wanted to learn everything he wanted
in one year that would have normally taken three or four years for anyone else to learn.
After about six weeks James learned that much he out done another apprentice who had
been at Cornhill for two years.
The University of Glasgow then arranged for James Watt to set up shop inside one
of their university buildings where he met his future long-life friends Dr. Joseph Black and
Professor John Robison both planning to be chemists. His shop at the university did not
sell many of his inventions mainly due to poor transportation. There was no trade link with
the town of Glasgow and therefore Watt couldn’t export his equipment and instruments.
He then turned towards making musical instruments for a period of time, most likely to
keep ahead financially. In 1763 though, he had the greatest influential experience in his
whole life. The University of Glasgow asked James to repair one of Thomas Newcomen’s
steam engine models that was not functioning correctly.
It was at this time in James Watt’s life that he began learning the principals behind
the workings of a steam engine. He learnt information from his friend Dr. Black about
heat; temperature and the properties of steam itself. After studying steam engines for a
period he became the only person with enough knowledge to improve on the steam engine
at that time. Even though Newcomen had already developed the steam engine before
James Watt, it was about to be improved substantially without even knowing the results it
would have on the industrial revolution. As Watt was fixing the machine he was intrigued
on how much fuel it burned. He then thought about ways to reduce the fuel consumption
and found out it was mostly caused by the pistons and other metal work heating cooling,
always requiring extra heat.
James Watt then constructed a new steam engine with an insulated main cylinder
that allowed the metal work to stay constantly hot reducing the fuel by almost 75%. He
also worked on a condenser which reuses five sixths of the wasted steam by condensing it
back to water. He was also great at adapting a leather washer inside of the piston cylinder
to provide a neat seal and prevent steam with leaking which it was previously. In 1767
Watt proceeded to go into a partnership with Dr. Roebuck, an associate Watt knew at the
time. Dr. Roebuck paid off Watt’s 1000 debt and allowed James to continue his costly
experiments. In return the patent declared that Roebuck was two-thirds the inventor of the
new improved steam engine.
On the very day that Watt obtained his first patent, January 5th 1769, Arkwright
got a patent for his ‘Spinning-Frame’. James Watt successfully had the new steam engine
put in his name in conjunction with Dr. Roebuck. His first steam engines were used to
pump water out of the mines in the surrounding area and in 1783 almost all of
Newcomen’s engines were replaced by Watt’s. In September 1769 Watt was finishing his
huge steam engine however it didn’t even approve of it himself and said it was a ‘clumsy
job’. The new condenser didn’t work efficiently and the cylinder wasn’t shaped right
resulting in a leaking cylinder allowing steam to escape.
Soon Roebuck began to retire but at the same time Matthew Boulton left school to
join his father in the family business. Boulton was only seventeen at the time. Eventually
his father died and Matthew took over the business. Roebuck was also communicating
with Boulton as to Watt’s progress with the steam engine as he was also one of Boulton’s
correspondents. Once Boulton heard of Watt’s progress he immediately arranged for Watt
to visit him and later arranged a partnership and set up a patent in 1775 for an even more
improved steam engine.
As James Watt was travelling he met up with Miss MacGregor who was connected
to the Glasgow University and later married her in July 1776. They managed to have two
children throughout their marriage however both died during their early youth. The final
steam engine that Watt made started to be implemented above mine in 1777. Watt’s
engines replaced the Newcomen engines that could not drain the deep mines and because
of this, James Watt received orders for more of his engines after the success of the first.
The Watt steam engine was then adapted to many different kinds of machinery including
the spinning machines for yarn.
Even though James Watt complained of ill health throughout his life he easily
reached his eighties. When James reach eighty-one years in 1816, he was confronted with
a disheartening truth. All of his friends had already died many years before him and so he
lived partly lonesome life. On August 19, 1819, James Watt who was aged 83 died at his
own home in Healthfield. Mrs. Watt lived much longer dying in 1832.
James Watt was able to live through his life knowing that even though he only
improved an existing invention, he powered much of the industrial revolution in doing so.
His innovations also saved many of the mines in those times that were full of water unable
to be pumped out by older model steam engines. James also knew that the protectionist
nature of his patent also meant that future improvement could not easily be made,
protecting his version of the steam engine as long as possible.