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Significant Scots
James Watt

James WattJames Watt, the son of a merchant, was born in Greenock, Scotland, in 1736. At the age of nineteen Watt was sent to Glasgow to learn the trade of a mathematical-instrument maker.

After spending a year in London, Watt returned to Glasgow in 1757 where he established his own instrument-making business. Watt soon developed a reputation as a high quality engineer and was employed on the Forth & Clyde Canal and the Caledonian Canal. He was also engaged in the improvement of harbours and in the deepening of the Forth, Clyde and other rivers in Scotland.

In 1763 Watt was sent a Newcomen steam engine to repair. While putting it back into working order, Watt discovered how he could make the engine more efficient. Watt worked on the idea for several months and eventually produced a steam engine that cooled the used steam in a condenser separate from the main cylinder. James Watt was not a wealthy man so he decided to seek a partner with money. John Roebuck, the owner of a Scottish ironworks, agreed to provide financial backing for Watt's project.

When Roebuck went bankrupt in 1773, Watt took his ideas to Matthew Boulton, a successful businessman from Birmingham. For the next eleven years Boulton's factory producing and selling Watt's steam-engines. These machines were mainly sold to colliery owners who used them to pump water from their mines. Watt's machine was very popular because it was four times more powerful than those that had been based on the Thomas Newcomen design.

Watt continued to experiment and in 1781 he produced a rotary-motion steam engine. Whereas his earlier machine, with its up-and-down pumping action, was ideal for draining mines, this new steam engine could be used to drive many different types of machinery. Richard Arkwright was quick to importance of this new invention, and in 1783 he began using Watt's steam-engine in his textile factories. Others followed his lead and by 1800 there were over 500 of Watt's machines in Britain's mines and factories.

In 1755 Watt had been granted a patent by Parliament that prevented anybody else from making a steam-engine like the one he had developed. For the next twenty-five years, the Boulton & Watt company had a virtual monopoly over the production of steam-engines. Watt charged his customers a premium for using his steam engines. To justify this he compared his machine to a horse. Watt calculated that a horse exerted a pull of 180 lb., therefore, when he made a machine, he described its power in relation to a horse, i.e. "a 20 horse-power engine". Watt worked out how much each company saved by using his machine rather than a team of horses. The company then had to pay him one third of this figure every year, for the next twenty-five years. When James Watt died in 1800 he was a very wealthy man.

Another account of James Watt

James WattWATT, JAMES, one of the most illustrious men of his time as a natural philosopher, chemist, and civil engineer, was born at Greenock, on the 19th of January, 1736. His father, James Watt, was a block-maker and ship chandler, and for some time one of the magistrates of Greenock; and his mother, Agnes Muirhead, was descended from a respectable family. During boyhood his health was very delicate, so that his attendance at school was by no means regular; nevertheless, by assiduous application at home, he soon attained great proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic; and, by the perusal of books that came within his command, he extended his knowledge beyond the circle of elementary instruction of the public schools, and cherished that thirst for information which is the characteristic of all men of genius, and for which he was throughout life remarkable. An anecdote of his boyhood has been preserved, showing the early bent of his mind. His aunt, Mrs. Muirhead, sitting with him one evening at the tea-table, said, "James, I never saw such an idle boy! Take a book, or employ yourself usefully; for the last half hour you have not spoken a word, but taken off the lid of that kettle, and put it on again." With the aid alternately of a cup and a silver spoon, he was observing how the steam rose from the spout and became condensed, and was counting drops of water. But there is little incident in his life until he reached his eighteenth year, excepting that he manifested a strong predilection for mechanical and mathematical pursuits. In accordance with this natural bent, he departed for London, in 1754, in order to learn the profession of a mathematical instrument-maker. When he arrived in London, he placed himself under the direction of a mathematical instrument-maker, and applied himself with great assiduity, and with such success, that, although he was obliged, from want of health, to return to his father’s roof in little more than a year, yet he persevered, and soon attained proficiency in his business. He made occasional visits to his mother’s relations in Glasgow, a city at that time considerably advanced in that career of manufacturing industry and opulence, for which it has in more recent times been so eminently distinguished. In that city, it was his intention to settle as a mathematical instrument-maker; but he was violently opposed by some corporations of the trades, who viewed him as an intruder upon their privileges, although the business which he intended to follow, was at that time little practised in Scotland. By this occurrence, the hopes of Watt had been well nigh frustrated, and the energies of his inventive mind had probably been turned in a different channel from that which distinguished his future years, had it not been for the kind and well directed patronage of the professors of the university. In the year 1757, this learned body, who had at that time to reckon among their number some of the greatest men then living--Smith, the political economist, Black, the chemist, and Simson, the geometer--conferred upon Watt the title of mathematical instrument-maker to the university, with all the privileges of that office, and chambers within the waIls of their venerable seminary, adjoining the apartments occupied by the celebrated printers, the Messrs Foulis. He continued to prosecute his avocation in this place for about six years, during which time, so far as health and necessary employment would permit, he applied himself to the acquisition of scientific knowledge. It was during this period, also, that he contracted a lasting friendship with Dr Black, whose name will ever be conspicuous in the history of philosophy, for his valuable additions to our knowledge of the doctrine of heat; and also with Robison, then a student in Glasgow college, and who afterwards filled the natural philosophy chair in the university of Edinburgh.

This period of Watt’s life was marked by an incident, which in itself might appear trifling, and not at all out of the course of his ordinary business, but which was nevertheless productive of results, that not only gave immortality to his name, but impressed a great and lasting change on the commerce and manners of his own country, and also of a great portion of the world. We here allude to a circumstance that shall shortly be mentioned, that led to the improvements of Watt on the steam engine; and the events of his life are so intimately interwoven with the history of the perfection of this extraordinary machine, that it will be necessary, in a brief and popular way, to describe the leading principles of its action.

The steam engine, at the time of which we speak, was constructed after the plan invented by Newcomen. The chief use to which these engines were applied, was the pumping of water from coal mines, one end of the pump rod being attached to a long lever, or beam supported in the middle. To the other end of this lever was attached the rod of a piston, capable of moving up and down in a cylinder, after the manner of a common syringe. The weight of the pump rod, &c., at the one end of the beam, having caused that end to descend, the other end was necessarily raised, and, the piston rising in the cylinder, steam was admitted from the bottom to fill the vacuity. But when the piston arrived at the top, cold water was injected at the bottom, and by reducing the temperature of the steam, condensed it, forming a vacuum. In this state of things, the atmosphere pressing on the top of the piston, forced it down, and raised the pump rod at the other end of the beam. This operation being continued, the pumping of the mine was carried on. Such was the form of the steam engine, when Watt first found it; and such is its construction at many coal mines even in our own day, where the economy of fuel is not a matter of any importance.

Anderson, the professor of natural philosophy, in the course of the winter of 1763, sent a model of Newcomen’s engine to Mr Watt in order to be repaired. This was accordingly done, and the model set in operation, and with this an ordinary mechanic would have been satisfied. But the mind of the young engineer had two years before this time been occupied in researches into the properties of steam. During the winter of 1761, he made several very simple yet decisive experiments, for the most part with apothecaries’ phials, by which he found that a cubic inch of water will form a cubic foot of steam, equal in elasticity to the pressure of the atmosphere, and also that when a cubic foot of steam is condensed by injecting cold water, as much heat is given out as would raise six cubic inches of water to the boiling point. To these important discoveries in the theory of steam, he subsequently added a third, beautifully simple, as all philosophical truths are, and valuable from its extensive application to practical purposes: he found that the latent heat of steam decreases as the sensible heat increases, and that universally these two added together make a constant quantity which is the same for all temperatures. This matter is commonly misrepresented, and it is stated not only in accounts of the steam engine, but also in memoirs of Mr Watt, that the discoveries of Dr Black regarding the properties of heat and steam laid the foundation of all Watt’s inventions. Dr Black himself gave a correct statement of the matter, and frequently mentioned with great candour, that Mr Watt discovered unaided the latent heat of steam, and having communicated this to the doctor, that great chemist was agreeably surprised at this confirmation of the theory he had already formed, and explained that theory to Mr Watt; a theory which was not made public before the year 1762. During the same year Watt made some experiments with a Papin’s digester, causing the piston of a syringe to move up and down by the force of steam of high temperature, on the principle of the high pressure engine, now employed for various purposes. But he gave up the idea from fear of bursting the boiler, and the difficulty of making tight joints. These facts are sufficient to prove that he had at this time some idea of improving the steam engine; and he himself modestly says, "My attention was first directed in 1759, to the subject of steam engines by Dr Robison, then a student in the university of Glasgow, and nearly of my own age. Robison at that time threw out the idea of applying the power of the steam engine to the moving of wheel carriages and to other purposes; but the scheme was not matured, and was soon abandoned on his going abroad." His active mind, thus prepared, was not likely to allow the defects of the model which was put in his hands to pass unobserved. This interesting model, which is still preserved among the apparatus of the Glasgow university, has a cylinder whose diameter is two inches, the length of stroke being six. Having repaired it, he tried to set it a-going, the steam being formed in a spherical boiler whose diameter was about nine inches. In the course of these trials he found the quantity of steam, as likewise that of the cold injection water, to be far greater in proportion, than what he understood was required for engines of a larger size. This great waste of steam, and consequently fuel, he endeavoured to remedy by forming cylinders of bad conductors of heat, such as wood saturated with oil, but this had not the desired effect. At last the fact occurred to him, that the cylinder was never sufficiently cooled down in order to obtain a complete vacuum. For some time before this it had been found by Dr Cullen that under diminished pressure there is a corresponding fall of the boiling point. It now became necessary to ascertain the relation which the boiling point bears to the pressure on the surface of the water. He was not possessed of the necessary instruments to try the boiling points under pressures less than that of the atmosphere, but having tried numerous points under increased pressures, he laid down a curve whose ordinates represented the pressures and abscissas the corresponding boiling points, and thus discovered the equation of the boiling point. These considerations led Watt, after much reflection, to the true method of overcoming the difficulties in the operation of Newcomen’s engine. The two things to be effected were, 1st, to keep the cylinder always as hot as the steam to be admitted into it, and secondly, to cool down the condensed steam and the injection water used for condensation to a temperature not exceeding 100 degrees. It was early in the summer of l765 that the method of accomplishing these two objects was first matured in his mind. It then occurred to him that if a communication were opened between a cylinder containing steam and another vessel exhausted of air and other fluids, the steam would immediately rush into the empty vessel, and continue so to do until an equilibrium was established, and by keeping that vessel very cool the steam would continue to enter and be condensed. A difficulty still remained to be overcome, how was the condensed steam and injection water, together with the air, which must necessarily accompany, to be withdrawn from the condensing vessel. Watt thought of two methods, one by a long pipe, sunk into the earth, and the other by employing a pump, wrought by the engine itself; the latter was adopted. Thus was laid open the leading principle of a machine the most powerful, the most regular, and the most ingenious, ever invented by man.

Watt constructed a model, the cylinder of which was nine inches diameter, making several improvements besides those above alluded to. He surrounded the cylinder with a casing, the intervening space being filled with steam to keep the cylinder warm. He also put a cover on the top, causing the piston rod to move through a hole in it, and the piston was rendered air-tight by being lubricated with wax and tallow, instead of water as formerly. The model answered the expectations of the inventor, but in the course of his trials the beam broke, and he set it aside for some time.

In tracing the progress of improvement in the steam engine, we have been obliged to pass over some incidents in his life which took place during the same period, and which we now proceed to notice. In the course of the year 1763, Mr Watt married his cousin Miss Miller, daughter of the chief magistrate of Calton, Glasgow; previously to which he removed from his apartments in the college, and opened a shop in the Saltmarket, opposite St Andrew’s Square, for the purpose of carrying on his business as Mathematical and Philosophical instrument-maker. Here he applied himself occasionally in making and repairing musical instruments, and made several improvements on the organ. He afterwards removed to Buchanan’s land in the Trongate, a little west of the Tontine, and in 1768 he shut shop, and removed to a private house in King Street, nearly opposite to the Green market. It was not, however, in any of these residences that the interesting experiments and valuable discoveries connected with the steam engine were made; the experiments were performed, and the model erected in the delft work at the Broomielaw quay, in which concern Watt soon after became a partner, and continued so to the end of his life.

In 1765, Dr Lind brought from India a perspective machine, invented there by a Mr Hurst, and showed it to his friend Mr Watt, who, by an ingenious application of the principle of the parallel ruler, contrived a machine much lighter, and of more easy application. Many of these machines were made and sent to various parts of the world; and Adams, the eminent philosophical instrument-maker, copied one of those sent to London, and made them for sale.

Mr Watt, having relinquished the business of mathematical instrument-maker, commenced that of civil engineer, and in the course of 1767, he surveyed the Forth and Clyde canal; but the bill for carrying on this great and beneficial public work being lost in parliament, his attention was directed to the superintendence of the Monkland canal, for which he had previously prepared the estimates and a survey. He likewise surveyed for the projected canal between Perth and Forfar, as also for the Crinan canal, which was subsequently executed under the superintendence of Rennie.

In 1773, the importance of an inland navigation in the northern part of Scotland between the eastern and western seas became so great, that Mr Watt was employed to make a survey of the Caledonian canal, and to report on the practicability of connecting that remarkable chain of lakes and valleys. These surveys he made, and reported so favourably of the practicability of the undertaking, that it would have been immediately executed, had not the forfeited lands, from which the funds were to be derived, been restored to their former proprietors. This great national work was afterwards executed by Mr Telford, on a more magnificent scale than had originally been intended.

What Johnson said of Goldsmith may with equal justice be applied to Watt, "he touched not that which he did not adorn." In the course of his surveys, his mind was ever bent on improving the instruments he employed, or in inventing others to facilitate or correct his operations. During the period of which we have been speaking he invented two micrometers for measuring distances not easily accessible, such as arms of the sea. Five years after the invention of these ingenious instruments, one Mr Green obtained a premium for an invention similar to one of them, from the Society of Arts, notwithstanding the evidence of Smeaton and other roofs that Watt was the original contriver.

Mr Watt applied for letters patent in 1768, for "methods of lessening the consumption of steam and consequently of fuel in the steam engine," which passed the seals in January 1769. Besides the improvements, or rather inventions already alluded to, this patent contained in its specification methods to employ the steam expansively upon the piston, and where water was not plentiful, to work the engine by this force of steam only, by discharging the steam into the open air after it has done its office, and also methods of forming a rotatory steam engine. Thus was completed Watts single reciprocating engine and while the patent was passing through the different stages an engagement was entered into between the inventor and Dr Roebuck of the Carron iron works, a man equally eminent for kindness of heart, ability, and enterprise. The terms of this agreement were, that Dr Roebuck, in consideration of his risk of capital, should receive two-thirds of the clear profits of the sale of the engines which they manufactured. Dr Roebuck at this time rented the large coal mines at Kinneil, near Borrowstownness, and under the superintendence of Mr Watt an engine was erected at Kinneil house, the cylinder of which was made of block tin, being eighteen inches diameter. The action of this engine far surpassed even the sanguine expectations of the proprietors. Preparations were accordingly made for the manufacture of the new steam engine; but the pecuniary difficulties in which Dr Roebuck became at this time involved, threw a check on the proceedings. From this period till the end of 1773, during which time, as we have seen, Mr Watt was employed in surveys, &c., little was done with the patent right obtained in 1769. About the end of the year 1773, while Mr Watt was engaged in his survey of the Caledonian canal, he received intimation from Glasgow of the death of his wife, who left him a son and a daughter.

His fame as an engineer had now become generally known, and about the commencement of 1774, he received an invitation from Mr Matthew Boulton, of the Soho foundery, near Birmingham, to enter into copartnership, for the manufacture of the steam engine. Mr Watt prevailed upon Dr Roebuck to sell his share of the patent right to Mr Boulton, and immediately proceeded to Birmingham, and entered on business with his new partner. This new alliance was not only exceedingly fortunate for the parties themselves, but forms an important era in the history of the manufactures of Great Britain. Few men were so well qualified as Boulton to appreciate the merits of Watt’s inventions, or possessed of so much enterprise and capital to put them into operation. He had already established the foundery at Soho on a scale of magnificence and extent, not at that time elsewhere to be found; and the introduction of Watt made an incalculable addition to the extent and regularity of its operation.

The length of time and great outlay necessary for bringing the manufacture of steam engines to such a state as would yield a remuneration, was now apparent to Mr Watt, and he clearly saw that the few years of his patent which had yet to run, would not be by any means sufficient to yield an adequate return. Early, therefore, in 1774, he applied for an extension of his patent right, and by the zealous assistance of Drs Roebuck and Robison, he obtained this four years afterwards, the extension being granted for twenty-five years. The year following the first application for the extension of the patent, the manufacture of steam engines was commenced at Soho, under the firm Boulton, Watt, and Co. Many engines were made at this foundery, and licenses granted to miners in various parts of the country to use their engines, on condition that the patentees should receive a third part of the saving of coals of the new engine, compared with one of the same power on Newcomen’s construction. An idea may be formed of the profits arising by this arrangement, when we know that from the proprietors of three large engines erected at Chacewater in Cornwall, Watt and Boulton received 800 annually.

John Smeaton had for many years been employed in erecting and improving the steam engine on Newcomen’s principle, and did as much for its perfection as beauty and proportion of mechanical construction could effect. The fame of Smeaton does not rest on his improvements on the steam engine. What he has done in other departments of engineering, is amply sufficient to rank him as one of the most ingenious men England ever produced. Yet even what he has left behind him, in the improvement of Newcomen’s engine, is well worthy the study, and will ever elicit the admiration of the practical mechanic. To a man of weaker mind than Smeaton, it must have been galling to see all the ingenuity and application which he had bestowed on the subject of steam power, rendered almost useless by the discovery of a younger man. Yet when he saw Watt’s improvement, he was struck with its excellence and simplicity, and with that readiness and candour which are ever the associates of true genius, he communicated to Mr Watt, by a complimentary letter, the high opinion he held of his invention; admitting that "the old engine, even when made to do its best, was now driven from every place, where fuel could be considered of any value." How different this from the treatment he received from inferior individuals, labouring in the same field! His right to the invention of a separate condenser, was disputed by several, whose claims were publicly and satisfactorily refuted. Among others, he was attacked in a strain of vulgar abuse, amid a tissue of arrant falsehoods, by a Mr Hornblower, who wrote the article "Steam Engine," in the first and second editions of Gregory’s Mechanics. This Mr Hornblower, not contented with giving his own shallow evidence against Watt, has, with the characteristic grovelling which pervades the whole of his article, endeavoured to give weight to his assertions, by associating with himself a respectable man. Mr Hornblower states, that, in a conversation with Mr S. Moor, secretary to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, that gentleman had stated that Mr Gainsborough was the true inventor of the separate condenser. Mr Moor had doubtless an intimate knowledge of the true state of the matter; and, fortunately for his reputation as a sincere and candid man, we find him controvert this upon oath, at his examination in the case, Watt and Boulton versus Bull, in 1792.

In 1775, Mr Watt married, for the second time. The lady, Miss M’Gregor, was the daughter of Mr M’Gregor, a wealthy merchant of Glasgow, who, as will be seen hereafter, was the first in Britain, in conjunction with Mr Watt, to apply chlorine in the process of bleaching. From this time, Watt applied himself assiduously to the improvement of that powerful machine for which he had already done so much. In 1781, he took out a patent for the regulating motion, and that beautiful contrivance, the sun and planet wheel. The short history of this latter invention, gives an apt illustration of his exhaustless powers of contrivance. For the purpose of converting the reciprocating motion of the large beam into a rotatory movement for driving machinery, he had recourse to that simple contrivance, the crank; but while it was preparing at Soho, one of the workmen communicated it to Mr Steed, who immediately took out a patent, and thus frustrated Watt’s views. Mr Watt bethought himself of a substitute, and hit upon the happy idea of the sun and planet wheel. This and the like occurrences may have given him that fondness for patents, with which he has frequently been charged.

During the course of the following year, two distinct patents were granted to Mr Watt, one in February, and the other in July, for an expansive engine—six contrivances for regulating the motion—double acting engine—two cylinders--parallel motion, by rack and sector—semirotative engine--and steam wheel. A third was granted in 1784, for a rotative engine—parallel motions—portable engine and steam carriage--working hammers--improved hand gear, and new method of working the valves. The most important of these inventions are, the double acting engine, in which steam is admitted both below and above the piston alternately, steam pressure being thus employed to press on each side of the piston, while a vacuum was formed over the other. By this contrivance, he was enabled to double the power of the engine, without increasing the dimensions of the cylinder. To the complete effecting of this, he was obliged to cause the piston rod to move through a stuffing box at the top of the cylinder; a contrivance, it must be stated, which had been some years previous applied by Smeaton, in the construction of pumps. Simple as these additions may at first appear, they were, nevertheless, followed by many great advantages. They increased the uniformity of motion, and at the same time diminished the extent of cooling surface, the size of boiler, and the weight and magnitude of the whole machinery. Another vast improvement involved in these patents, is the expansive engine in which the steam was let fully in, at the beginning of the stroke, and the valves shut, when the piston had advanced through a part of its progress, the rest being completed by the expansion of the steam; which arrangement greatly increases the power. This engine was included in the patent for 1782; though Mr Hornblower had published something of the same nature the year before. But an engine on the expansive principle was erected by Watt at Shadwell iron works in 1778, and even two years before expansive engines had been manufactured at Soho; facts which secure to Watt the honour of the priority of discovery. That ingenious combination of levers which guided the piston rod, and is called the parallel motion, was secured by patent of 1784, and remains to this day unsurpassed as a beautifully simple mechanical contrivance.

In 1785, a patent was granted to Mr Watt for a new method of constructing furnaces, and the consumption of smoke. He likewise applied to the steam engine the governor, or conical pendulum, the steam and condension gauges, and the indicator. About the same time, in consequence of the delay and expense attendant on the numerous experiments towards the perfection of this vast creator and distributor of power, he found it necessary to apply to parliament for an extension of his patent, which was granted to the end of the eighteenth century. By this grant, the proprietors of the Soho foundery were enabled speedily to realize a great fortune.

In the winter of the year 1786,the subject of this memoir, together with his able and active partner, went to Paris, at the solicitation of the French government, in order to improve the method of raising water at Marley. Here Mr Watt met with most of the eminent men of science, who at that time adorned the French metropolis; and among the rest, the celebrated chemist, Berthollet. The French philosopher had discovered, in 1785, the bleaching properties of chlorine, and communicated the fact to Mr Watt, with the power of patenting the invention in England. This Mr Watt modestly declined doing, on the ground that he was not the author of the discovery. Mr Watt saw the value of this new process, and communicated the matter, through the course of the following year, to his father-in-law, Mr M’Gregor, who at that time carried on a large bleaching establishment in the vicinity of Glasgow. He sent an account of the process, together with some of the bleaching liquor, in March, 1787; and the process of bleaching by the new method was immediately commenced at Mr M’Gregor’s field, and five hundred pieces were speedily executed to entire satisfaction. Early in the following year, two foreigners made an attempt to gain a patent for the new bleaching process; but they were opposed by Mr Watt, and Messrs Cooper and Henry of Manchester, all of whom had already bleached by Berthollet’s method. Notwithstanding the misrepresentations in several histories of bleaching, it is manifest from these facts as well as from the dates of several letters of Mr Watt and Mr Henry, that the great improver of the steam engine, had also the honour of introducing the process of bleaching by chlorine into Great Britain; and though he was not the original discoverer, yet he greatly simplified and economised the process of obtaining the discharging agent employed, and the vessels and other arrangements used in the art of bleaching. Among other improvements may be mentioned, his method of testing the strength of the chlorine liquor, by ascertaining how much of it is necessary to discharge the colour of a given quantity of infusion of cochineal. The benefits which Mr Watt conferred on chemical science, did not terminate here. From a letter written to Dr Priestley in 1783, and in another to M. De Luc, in the same year, he communicated his important discovery of the composition of water. But in the beginning of the following year, Mr Cavendish read a paper on the same subject, claiming to himself the honour of discovery; and in the histories of chemistry, the claims of Cavendish are silently admitted. There is a confusion of dates in the documents on this subject, which at the present day it is impossible to reconcile; but from the characters of the two men, we are inclined to think that each made the discovery independently of the other, and that therefore the credit is due to both. Mr Watt’s letter to M. De Luc was read before the Royal Society, and published in their Transactions for 1784, under the title of "Thoughts on the Constituent parts of Water, and of Dephlogisticated Air; with an Account of some Experiments on that subject." Mr Watt also contributed a paper on the medical properties and application of the factitious airs, to the treatise of Dr Beddoes on pneumatic medicine, and continued during the latter period of his life deeply to engage himself in chemical pursuits.

A patent was granted to Mr Watt in 1780, for a machine for copying letters and drawings. This machine, which soon became well known, and extensively used, was manufactured by Messrs Boulton and Kier, under the firm of James Watt and Company. He was led to this invention, from a desire to abridge the time necessarily spent in taking copies of the numerous letters he was obliged to write. It was constructed in two forms, on the principle of the rolling press, one of them being large, and fitted for offices; the other light, and capable of being inclosed in a portable writing desk. Through the course of the following year, Mr Watt invented a steam drying apparatus, for his friend, Mr M’Gregor, of Glasgow. For this machine he never took out a patent, although it was the first thing of the kind ever contrived; nor was there ever any drawing or description of it published during his lifetime. [See Edinburgh Encyc., xviii., Steam Drying.] During the winter of 1784, Mr Watt made arrangements for heating his study by steam; which method has since been extensively applied to the heating of private houses, conservatories, hot-houses, and manufactories. Concerning the history of this apparatus, it is but justice to state, that colonel Cook had, in the Philosophical Transactions for 1745, described a method of "heating apartments by means of the steam of water conveyed along the walls by pipes;" but there is no proof that this was known to Mr Watt.

In the year 1800, Mr Watt withdrew from the concern at Soho, delivering his share of the business to his two sons, James and Gregory, the latter of whom died in the prime of life, much regretted by all who knew him. After having given ample proofs of great mental endowments Mr Watt thus retired from business, with a well earned competency, which enabled him to enjoy the evening of a well spent life with ease and comfort in the bosom of his family. At no time had he taken any active share in the management of the business of the Soho foundery, nor were his visits to it, even while he was a partner, by any means frequent. Mr Boulton was a man of excellent address, great wealth, of business habits, and full of enterprise, and contributed greatly to the improvement of the steam engine, by taking upon himself the entire management of the works at Soho: he thus relieved from all worldly concern, the mind of his illustrious partner, which was much more profitably employed on those profound and valuable researches, by which he has added so largely to the field of science. As Dupin well observes, "men who devote themselves entirely to the improvement of industry, will feel in all their force the services that Boulton has rendered to the arts and mechanical sciences, by freeing the genius of Watt from a crowd of extraneous difficulties which would have consumed those days that were far better dedicated to the improvement of the useful arts."

Although Mr Watt retired from public business, he did not relax in his ardour for scientific pursuits and new inventions. Towards the end of the year 1809, he was applied to by the Glasgow Water Company to assist them in pointing out a method of leading water across the river, from a well on the south side, which afforded a natural filter. From a consideration of the structure of the lobster’s tail, he formed the idea of a flexible main, with ball and socket joints, to be laid across the bed of the river, and which was constructed according to his plan in the summer of 1810. This ingenious contrivance gave such satisfaction, that another precisely similar was added a short time afterwards. Two years subsequent to this, he received the thanks of the Board of Admiralty, for his opinion and advice regarding the formation of the docks then carrying on at Sheerness.

About the year 1813, it was proposed to publish a complete edition of Dr Robison’s works, and the materials were delivered, for the purpose of editing, into the hands of his able friend, Playfair, who, not having sufficient leisure for such an undertaking, transmitted them to Sir D. Brewster. The latter gentleman applied to Mr Watt for his assistance in the revision of the article "Steam Engine," for which article he had originally furnished some materials, when it first appeared in the Encyclopedia Britannica; and to the article, in its new form, he furnished many valuable corrections and additions.

In 1817, Mr Watt paid a visit to his native country; and it surprised and delighted his friends to find that he enjoyed good health, his mind possessed its wonted vigour, and his conversation its wonted charms. During the last years of his life, he employed himself in contriving a machine for taking copies of pieces of sculpture. This machine never received the finishing touch of its inventor’s hand; but it was brought to such perfection, that seven specimens were executed by it in a very creditable manner. Some of these he distributed among his friends, "as the productions of a young artist, just entering his eighty-third year." When this machine was considerably advanced in construction, Mr Watt learned that a neighbouring gentleman had been for some time engaged in a similar undertaking; and a proposal was made to Mr Watt, that they should jointly take out a patent, which he declined, on the ground, that from his advanced age, it would be unwise for him to enter upon any new speculation. It was always Mr Watt’s opinion that this gentleman had no knowledge whatever of the construction of the machine.

The health of Mr Watt, which was naturally delicate, became gradually better towards the latter period of his long and useful life. Intense headaches arising from an organic defect in the digestive system, often afflicted him. These were often aggravated and induced by the severe study to which be commonly subjected himself, and the perplexity arising from the frequent lawsuits in which he had been engaged towards the close of the eighteenth century. It must not be inferred from this last statement, that this great man, whose discoveries we have been recounting, was by any means litigiously inclined. His quiet and peaceful mind was ever disposed to shrink from the agitations of paper wars and law pleas, and to repose in the quiet retreats of science. Many attempts were made to pirate his inventions and to encroach upon his patent rights, against which he never made any other defence than that which become an honest man, i. e. an appeal for the protection of the law of the land. He lived to see all these attempts to rob him of the profits of his inventions, as well as the envy and detraction which are ever the followers of merit, silenced for ever, and terminated a long, useful, and honourable life in the full possession of his mental faculties, at his residence at Heathfield in Staffordshire, on the 25th of August, 1819, having reached his eighty-fourth year.

The fame of Watt will in future ages rest secure upon the imperishable basis of his many discoveries, and he will ever be ranked in the first class of those great men who have benefited the human race by the improvement of the arts of industry and peace. Even during his lifetime this was known and recognized, and he received several honorary distinctions. In 1784, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the year following he became fellow of the Royal Society of London. In 1787, he was chosen corresponding member of the Batavian Society; in 1806, he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from the university of Glasgow; and ten years later, he was made a member of the national institute of France.

Respecting the private character of Watt it would be difficult to communicate an adequate idea of its excellence. Those who knew him will ever remember that in his private intercourse with society he elicited from them more love and admiration than they can ever express. He was benevolent and kind to all those who came about him, or solicited either his patronage or advice. His conversation was easy, fluent, and devoid of all formality; replete with profound and accurate information on all subjects, blended with pertinent and amusing anecdote—such that, when combined with big plain unaffected language, the mellow tones of his manly voice, his natural good humour and expressive countenance, produced an effect on those around him which will hardly ever fade from memory. He read much, and could easily remember and readily apply all that was valuable of what he read. He was versed in several of the modern languages, antiquities, law, and the fine arts, and was largely read in light literature. His character was drawn up by his friend Francis Jeffrey, with a fidelity and eloquence that has made it known to almost every one. We will, therefore, forbear to quote it here, and bring this memoir to a conclusion by placing before the reader what has been said of Watt by his illustrious countryman and friend, the author of Waverley. In the playful letter to captain Clutterbuck in the introduction to the Monastery, Sir Walter Scott gives the following lively description of his meeting in Edinburgh with this remarkable man:—"Did you know the celebrated Watt of Birmingham, captain Clutterbuck? I believe not, though, from what I am about to state, he would not have failed to have sought an acquaintance with you. It was only once my fortune to meet him, whether in body or in spirit it matters not. There were assembled about half a score of our northern lights, who had amongst them, heaven knows how, a well known character of your country, Jedediah Cleishbotham. This worthy person having come to Edinburgh during the Christmas vacation, had become a sort of lion in the place, and was led in leash from house to house along with the guizzards, the stone eater, and other amusements of the season, which ‘exhibit their unparalleled feats to private family parties, if required.’ Amidst this company stood Mr Watt, the man whose genius discovered the means of multiplying our national resources to a degree perhaps even beyond his own stupendous powers of calculation and combination, bringing the treasures of the abyss to the summit of the earth; giving the feeble arm of man the momentum of an Afrite; commanding manufactures to arise, as the rod of the prophet produced water in the desert; affording the means of dispensing with that time and tide which wait for no man, and of sailing without that wind which defied the commands and threats of Xerxes himself. This potent commander of the elements—this abridger of time and space—this magician, whose cloudy machinery has produced a change on the world, the effects of which, extraordinary as they are, are perhaps only now beginning to be felt—was not only the most profound man of science, the most successful combiner of powers and calculator of numbers, as adapted to practical purposes—was not only one of the most generally well informed, but one of the best and kindest of human beings.

"There he stood, surrounded by the little band I have mentioned of northern literati, men not less tenacious, generally speaking, of their own fame and their own opinions than the national regiments are supposed to be jealous of the high character which they have gained upon service. Methinks I yet see and hear what I shall never see and hear again. In his eighty-fifth year, the alert, kind, benevolent old man had his attention at every one’s question, his information at every one’s command. His talents and fancy overflowed on every subject. One gentleman was a deep philologist; he talked with him on the origin of the alphabet as if he had been coeval with Cadmus: another was a celebrated critic; you would have said the old man had studied political economy and belles lettres all his life; of science it is unnecessary to speak, it was his own distinguished walk. And yet, captain Clutterbuck, when he spoke with your countryman, Jedediah Cleishbotham, you would have sworn he had been coeval with Claverse and Burley, with the persecutors and persecuted, and could number every shot the dragoons had fired at the fugitive Covenanters. In fact, we discovered that no novel of the least celebrity escaped his perusal, and that the gifted man of science was as much addicted to the productions of your native country, (the land of Utopia aforesaid;) in other words, as shameless and obstinate a peruser of novels as if he had been a very milliner’s apprentice of eighteen."

A highly characteristic statue of Watt, by Chantrey, adorns a Gothic monument reared to his memory, by his son, Mr James Watt, who died June 2, 1848, in his 80th year. Three other statues of him by Chantrey have been erected— one of them, of colossal size, stands in Westminster Abbey, and bears an elegant inscription by lord Brougham. The countenance of this statue has been characterised as the personification of abstract thought. Glasgow possesses the other two—one of marble, in the museum of the university, and the other of bronze, in George’s Square. His native town of Greenock has also rendered appropriate homage to his genius, by erecting not only his statue but a public library, which bears his name. An admirable Eloge on Watt and his inventions was pronounced before the National Institute of France by the late M. Arago. Lord Brougham has also celebrated his merits in his Historical Account of the Composition of Water, which is published as an appendix to the Eloge.

James Watt
By Andrew Carnegie (1907)

When the publishers asked me to write the Life of Watt, I declined, stating that my thoughts were upon other matters. This settled the question, as I supposed, but in this I was mistaken. Why shouldn't I write the Life of the maker of the steam-engine, out of which I had made fortune? Besides, I knew little of the history of the Steam Engine and of Watt himself, and the surest way to obtain knowledge was to comply with the publisher's highly complimentary request. In short, the subject would not down, and finally, I was compelled to write again, telling them that the idea haunted me, and if they still desired me to undertake it, I should do so with my heart in the task.

I now know about the steam-engine, and have also had revealed to me one of the finest characters that ever graced the earth. For all this I am deeply grateful to the publishers.

I am indebted to friends, Messrs. Angus Sinclair and Edward R. Cooper, for editing my notes upon Scientific and Mechanical points.

The result is this volume. If the public, in reading, have one tithe of the pleasure I have had in writing it, I shall be amply rewarded.



Chapter I. Childhood and Youth
Chapter II. Glasgow to London—Return to Glasgow
Chapter III. Captured by Steam
Chapter IV. Partnership with Roebuck
Chapter V. Boulton Partnership
Chapter VI. Removal to Birmingham
Chapter VII. Second Patent
Chapter VIII. The Record of the Steam Engine
Chapter IX. Watt in Old Age
Chapter X. Watt, the Inventor and Discoverer
Chapter XI. Watt, the Man

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