James Watt, Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer, renowned for his improvements of the steam engine was born on January 19, 1736, in Greenock, Scotland. The son of a ship's chandler, James had little formal education due to poor health in his youth. But he was always obsessed with trying to make things work ‘like clock work'. Other sources say that James, in spite of his apparent mathematical genius, was unable to fit into school. James went to school at a later age than most children, but did not particularly distinguish himself there. He had missed the rough-and-tumble of early mixing with boys of his own age and felt misfit. He was regarded as a fair game for the bullies and had a very tough time before he eventually settled down to school life. Nevertheless, when he passed the grammar school at the age of 12, his innate abilities began to assert themselves.
He was but a boy of 12, when the famous happening of the steaming kettle took place. The steaming kettle was an extreme source of interest for young James, so much so, that on one occasion his Aunt Muirhead started to reprimand him for his idleness. She said, "For the last hour you have not spoken one word but taken the lid off that kettle and put it on again, holding now a cup and now a silver spoon over the steam, watching how it rises from the spout, and catching and connecting the drops it falls into. Are you not ashamed of spending your time in this way?"
In his late teens he went to London with a dream to become a mathematical and philosophical instrument maker. When he returned to Glasgow he got a job making instruments for Glasgow University where he was given accommodation and a workshop. During his time there, he met chemist Joseph Black who was studying the heat properties of steam during that time.
In 1763, John Anderson asked him to repair an early steam engine he had acquired. This early model, known as the Newcomen engine, was very inefficient. During the repair, however, Watt found many areas of the engine's design that he believed could be improved upon, specifically the amount of energy it wasted. Under the Newcomen design, a jet of cold water was used to condense the steam in the engine, unfortunately this also had the effect of cooling other parts of the engine, which then had to be re-heated. Watt believed this to be an inefficient use of energy that could be corrected.
Over the next several years, Watt improved the design of the Newcomen engine, adding a separate condensing chamber in which the steam could be condensed without cooling the rest of the engine. This new design was nearly 75 per cent more efficient than its predecessor, as well has having several other smaller improvements. Watt determined the properties of steam, specially the relation of its density to its temperature and pressure. Watt's first patent, in 1769, covered this device and other improvements on Newcomen's engine, such as steam-jacketing, oil lubrication, and insulation of the cylinder in order to maintain the high temperatures necessary for maximum efficiency.
At this time, Watt was the partner of the British inventor John Roebuck, who had financed his researches. In 1775, however, Roebuck's interest was taken over by British manufacturer Matthew Boulton, owner of the Soho Engineering Works at Birmingham, and he and Watt began the manufacture of steam engines.
Watt continued his research and patented several other important inventions, including the rotary engine for driving various types of machinery; the double-action engine, in which steam is admitted alternately into both ends of the cylinder; and the steam indicator, which records the steam pressure in the engine. He retired from the firm in 1800 and thereafter devoted himself entirely to research work.
The misconception that Watt was the actual inventor of the steam engine arose from the fundamental nature of his contributions to its development. The centrifugal or flyball governor, which he invented in 1788, and which automatically regulated the speed of an engine, is of particular interest today. It embodies the feedback principle of a servomechanism, linking output to input, which is the basic concept of automation. Watt was also a renowned civil engineer, making several surveys of canal routes. He invented, in 1767, an attachment that adapted telescopes for use in measurement of distances. Watt coined the term horsepower. Watt's engines were initially used for pumping water from cornish tin and copper mines.
Later, almost all the new cotton mills, which had been built near fast-flowing rivers to take advantage of water power, switched to steam. Gradually, mills began to move toward the centres of population. At first, steam power was used mainly for spinning, but eventually weaving was also powered by steam engine. All this aided in building up the momentum, making the Industrial Revolution possible. Even though the steam engine hasn't been used industrially for many years now, Watt's legacy has endured. Eight years after his retirement in 1800, he founded the Watt Prize at Glasgow University, which also named an engineering laboratory after him.
By 1819, the year of Watt's death, there were 18 steam weaving factories in Glasgow, with 2800 looms. (This was excellent news for factory owners, but hundreds of unemployed handloom weavers were not so enthused.) The increased power-to-weight ratio of the new engines also permitted their use for marine propulsion - in 1788 a steam-powered catamaran was taken across Dalswinton loch by William Symington.
Despite his success, Watt was a rather insecure and jealous man, who did not like others having their own ideas. When an employee of the company, a man named William Murdoch, experimented with high pressure steam engines, Watt discouraged him from patenting and continuing his work, even though his engines were potentially much better and smaller than the ones Watt himself had invented. Murdoch never patented his design, and returned to fixing Watt's own engines.
James Watt died at Heathfield, England on August 19, 1819 at the age of 83 and was buried in Handsworth Church. In 1882, 63 years after Watt's death, the British Association gave his name to the unit of electrical power. The energy measurement unit called a "watt", a unit of energy equal to one joule per second (a joule being about the amount of energy it takes a person to lift a golf ball one meter, or the power dissipated by a current of 1 ampere flowing across a resistance of 1 ohm, for all you physics types). Today James Watt's name is found written on almost every light bulb in the world.
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Kylie Watt on October 05, 2010:
I am a direct descendant of James and am so very proud to be able to have so much information in the one place for my own children to do school assignments..
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RVG Menon on July 05, 2010:
Is there any contemporary record about the story of young James and the tea kettle?
I am interested in getting original references.
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