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James Watt - Inventor of the Modern Steam Engine

Early Life

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Three people on platform looking at steam train, rear view
Frank Herholdt/ The image Bank/ Getty Images
James Watt was of humble lineage, born in Greenock, Scotland on January 19, 1736. Greenock was then a little Scotch fishing village that became a busy town with a fleet of steamships during Watt's lifetime. His grandfather, Thomas Watt, was a well known mathematician and local schoolmaster. His father was a prominent citizen of Greenock, and was at various times chief magistrate and treasurer of the town.

Mechanical Mind

James Watt was intelligent, however, because of poor health he was unable to attend school regularly. His early education was given by his parents. Tools from his father's carpenter bench provided Watt's with manual dexterity and familiarity with their use gave the boy an early education in the basics of engineering and tooling.

Arago, the eminent French philosopher, who wrote one of the earliest and most interesting biographies of James Watt, relates anecdotes about the mechanical bent of the boy's mind. At the age of six years, James Watt occupied himself during by solving geometrical problems, and by experimenting with his mother's tea kettle, his earliest investigation into the nature of steam.

When James Watt was finally sent to the village school, his ill health prevented his making rapid progress; and it was only when thirteen or fourteen years of age that he began to show that he was capable of taking the lead in his class, and to exhibit his abilities, particularly in mathematics. His spare time was spent sketching with his pencil, carving, and working at the tool bench with wood and metal. He made many ingenious pieces of mechanism, and some beautiful models. He liked to repair nautical instruments. Among other pieces of apparatus made by the boy was a very fine barrel organ. In boyhood, James Watt was an avid reader, and found something to interest him in every book that came into his hands.

Apprenticeships

At the age of eighteen, James Watt was sent to Glasgow to reside with his mother's relatives, and learn the trade of a mathematical instrument maker. James Watt soon outgrow the knowledge of the mechanic he was apprenticed to. A friend and professor at the University of Glasgow, Doctor Dick advised him to move to London. James Watt moved in June of 1755, and found work with John Morgan, in Cornhill, for twenty guineas a week. After a year he was compelled, by serious ill health, to return home.

After regaining his health, James Watt returned to Glasgow in 1756. However, because he had not finished his apprenticeship, he was forbidden by the guilds, or trades unions, to open a shop in Glasgow. Doctor Dick came to his aid, and employed him to repair apparatus at the University. He remained there until 1760, when he was allowed to open a mechanic shop in the city. He briefly worked as a civil engineer, however, he preferred mechanics. James Watt spent much of his leisure time making musical instruments, inventing improvements in the construction of organs.

Newcomen Steam Engine

He kept his connections with the University of Glasgow and that led to his introduction to the Newcomen steam engine in 1763. A model was owned by the University and given to James Watt for repairs.

Doctor Robison, a student at the University, was friends with James Watt and hung around his shop. It was Robison who first intoduced James Watt to the concept of steam engines in 1759, and suggested that they could be used for the propulsion of carriages. James Watt built minature models using tin steam cylinders and pistons attached to driving wheels by a system of gears. However, he abandoned his early research on steam engines. After he examined the Newcomen steam engine twenty-five years later, Watts renewed his interest and began studing the history of the steam engine, and conducting experimental research into the properties of steam.

In his own experiments he used, at first, apothecaries' trials and hollow canes for steam reservoirs and pipes, and later a Papin's digester and a common syringe. The latter combination made a non condensing engine, in which he used steam at a pressure of 15 pounds per square inch. The valve was worked by hand, and James Watt saw that an automatic valve gear was needed to make a working machine. This experiment, however, led to no practical result. Watt finally got hold of the Newcomen model, after putting it in good working order, commenced experiments with that.

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