From an old textbook

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James Watt is considered by many to be the father of the steam engine. He nearly was, but not quite. What he did was invent the separate condenser, which made the use of steam power practicable.

He was born at Greenoch, Scotland, on January 19,1736, the son of a merchant. He died in Heathfield Hall at Staffordshire on August 19, 1819 at the age of 84 and was buried there in Handsworth Parish Church. What he did between these two dates changed the world.

As a child James was rather weak and did not attend school regularly. He expressed an interest in mathematics and machines and, at the age of 18 journeyed to London to learn the trade of instrument maker. After a year he returned home because of poor health.

Later he went to Glasgow and attempted to open a shop there but was thwarted by a craft guild. He then managed to secure a position as mathematical instrument maker at the University of Glasgow. He did all sorts of mechanical jobs and made fiddles.

Watt was given the task of repairing a model of the Newcomen atmospheric 'steam' engine, which was used for pumping water from mines. He was appalled by the waste of steam and fuel in the engines so he set about experimenting, studying the properties of steam.

In Newcomen's engine a piston was moved by atmospheric pressure in a cylinder where a vacuum was created by using cooling water to condense steam. The cylinder itself was used as a condenser.

Watt realized that to achieve engine efficiency two conditions had to be met. For a good vacuum the temperature of the condensed steam should be as low as possible and the cylinder should always be as hot as the steam that entered it.

In 1765 Watt found the answer when he developed his separate condenser. Steam was admitted into this air-exhausted receptacle and condensed there. This prevented loss of steam in the cylinder from condensation. The temperature in the cylinder was kept high.


This article is not a 'response' to the recent story we did on the Newcomen Museum, even though it may seem to be. The article was written by Bill Lenox several years ago and has been held until we could find a proper illustration. The picture is from an old textbook, 'Outlines of the World's History,' by William Swinton, published in 1874. Note that Watt's last name is spelled incorrectly. The 19th Century was indeed a time of great invention and progress. Ed.

Watt proceeded to improve his invention. A steam-type stuffing box for the piston rod permitted steam rather than air to press on top of the piston. The cylinder was given an insulated casing.

Later improvements were: a sun-and-planet gear wheel that provided rotary motion; a double-acting engine where steam powered piston strokes alternately at the ends of the cylinder; a cut-off that used the expansive power of steam, and a speed governor.

Watt became a partner of Matthew Boulton, who owned a manufacturing works at Soho, near Birmingham. Boulton's money and business ability were great assets in the business of manufacturing and marketing engines. We are sure that throughout history many an invention has been left to rust unseen in some deserted barn for lack of funds and know-how. Besides using all his capital for the venture Boulton was helpful in getting Parliament to extend the life of Watt's patent.

In 1800 Watt and Boulton retired from the business and their sons took over.

Watt contributed his talents to other sciences and was elected to the Edinburgh and London Royal Societies. The units used to measure electricity, the watt and the kilowatt, were named for him. He devised a combustion furnace, developed ink for copying letters and has a claim to having discovered the chemical composition of water, although the latter has been involved in controversy.

James Watt was one of history's inventive giants. Although not the actual father of the steam engine he certainly was a good stepfather who took Newcomen's 'infant' and brought it to maturity.