| September/October 1981

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.