James Watt and the invention of the Steam Engine

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James Watt’s steam engine is known as one of the most influential innovations in human history. It was developed and engineered by him over many years. He was a Scottish inventor, engineer, and chemist. Who was James Watt, and what went through his mind when he engineered the invention that went on to start an industrial revolution? All this will be covered in this article, where we will take a look at James Watt and the invention of the steam engine.

Who Was James Watt?

To learn more about the steam engine and how it was invented and developed, we need to learn more about James Watt himself. What were his roots, what was his childhood like, and how did he educate himself to be able to come up with this invention?


James was born as the first child of James Watt Senior and Agnes Muirhead. He had a heavy engineering influence from the start; his father, James Watt Senior, owned a ship-building business in Greenock, Scotland, which allowed James Watt Junior to learn a lot about engineering and all the tools and techniques used by his father. He was educated by his mother at home, where he learned mathematics, Latin, and Greek.

This provided him with a really strong background to do what he wanted to do – initially, he strived to become a mathematical instrument maker. He traveled to Glasgow, to the University of Glasgow, where he started working on mathematical instruments. Later, when he was 18, he traveled to London, where he was trained by a master instrument maker. It was at this time when James Watt became particularly interested in steam engines.

Apprenticeship and Work at University

After his venture in London, James Watt returned to Glasgow to establish his own instrument-making business. At the time, James was only 18 years of age. During this same period his mother passed away, and his father’s health deteriorated. Unfortunately for him, he was not able to establish a strong business as he had no connections and he didn’t possess a full apprenticeship.

1757 was a very important year for James Watt. His business in Glasgow was about to crumble, but it was this year that helped James Watt establish himself as one of the leading engineers at the university. The Glasgow University received some astronomical instruments that needed attention, and James Watt jumped at the chance to repair them. He restored those instruments successfully and was installed in the university observatory. Consequently, Watt received the opportunity to set up his workshop at the University of Glasgow.

It was at this time that Watt became acquainted with the likes of Joseph Black and Adam Smith, two very renowned Scottish scientists. He worked at this workshop for several years, where he repaired and developed instruments that were used by the University. It is here where he gained his knowledge about steam and was inspired to use this power. He saw untapped potential there, and he became fascinated by all the posibilities and started thinking about how it could be used more efficiently.

Marriage and Work With Steam

James Watt and the kettle that inspired him; when James Watt saw his mother’s kettle, Watt was impressed by how the kettle shook and how much power heat and steam can produce.Legand says that this is what inspired him to “create” the steam engine. While this story might be correct to a certain degree, Watt certainly did not create the first steam engine. It was just an improvement of the Newcomen steam engine. Still, it makes for an interesting story.

In 1758, James Watt became acquainted with John Craig, a local businessman. They started a shop in Glasgow that sold musical instruments and toys. The shop proved to be a successful investment for Watt. In 1765, when Craig died, the business was taken over by Alex Gardner. The business kept going well into the 19th century.

In the years of 1758 and 1759, James became more and more fascinated by the concept of a steam-powered engine. He started to experiment and develop concepts of a very early steam engine, which eventually failed. He didn’t give up, though; he read everything about steam and acquainted himself with the concept of latent heat. This concept proved to be the driver of the James Watt steam engine later on. All this gave him the relevant knowledge and also ideas for improvements.

In 1764, he married his cousin, Margaret Peggy Miller. They had two children: a boy and a girl. Interestingly, James Watt opted to name his son James (1769-1848) as well. His daughter was named Margaret and was born in 1767. She died when she was 29. The marriage lasted around nine years; in 1773, his wife passed away during the birth of his third child. The child was stillborn.

In the same year, Watt was asked to repair a dysfunctional Newcomen steam engine. These engines have by then been in use for the past 50 years for pumping water from mines. As soon as he started working with it, James Watt noticed that the engine was very inefficient and that it was not using the full capability of steam produced during the process.

Even though he managed to get it working again, Watt was still not happy. He sought to repair the engine and make it more efficient in its use of thermal energy. Watt knew that too little of that energy was converted into mechanical energy and this could be improved significantly.

The James Watt Steam Engine

James Watt’s steam engine turned out to be one of the most important inventions in the history of humankind.

These were to be the years that would change the course of history. In 1764, when James Watt started working on the Newcomen engine until twelve years later in 1776 when the first Watt steam engine was produced and sold commercially.

After working on the Newcomen engine, Watt started developing ideas to bring improvements to the design in an effort to maximize the potential of steam. In 1765, which would prove to be the decisive year for the steam engine, Watt released a critical insight where he noticed that the Newcomen engine was inefficient in its use of latent heat and suggested that the engine could be improved by adding a separate condenser where the condensation would occur in a chamber that is separate from the cylinder but still connected to it.

First Concepts and Pairing Up With Roebuck and Boulton

Even though this seemed like a simple improvement over other steam ebgines of the time, there were still some obstacles to overcome. For starters, the project needed a substantial financial backing in order to become successful. This is where it was important for Watt to befriend the right people; some of financial backings for his new design were provided by Joseph Black, an acquaintance from the early days.

But that was not enough. Watt was strapped for cash, so he had to get a job to earn money to develop his idea. He became a land surveyor in 1766, where he was marking out routes for canals in Scotland. This delayed further development of his steam engine for a couple of years.

A lot of capital was provided by John Roebuck, who was a successful businessman from Falkirk. Roebuck urged Watt to finish his concept.

He formed a partnership with Roebuck in 1768. He took out the patent “A newly invented method of lessening the consumption of steam and fuel in fire engine,” where all of his ideas were displayed. But the partnership was short-lived, as Roebuck went bankrupt in 1772. Fortunately for Watt, another investor saw potential in his work. That businessman was Matthew Boulton, an owner of the Soho Manufactory from Birmingham, England. This was a very successful partnership that would last for the next 25 years. Watt was not only able to acquire the funding but mabe more importantly, many quality ironworkers from the Soho Manufactory.

First Engines

To work on the patent, Watt moved to Birmingham in 1774, where he would colaborate closely with Boulton. Watt used the full capabilities of the Soho Manufactory workers; some of them were talented and helped Watt improve his engine even further. One such worker was John Wilkinson, who helped him develop the cylinder where the steam was coveterted into usable energy.

In 1775, the Watt’s patent was extended by the Parliament which allowed him more time to work on developing the engine. Finally, in 1776, the engines were ready to be used in mass production. After the engines were installed for pumping water in Staffordshire, they soon proved to be very efficient and successful. This led to steam engines becoming more and more popular for pumping water and later for industrial purposes.

This is the story that led to James Watt and the invention of the steam engine. But what about the aftermath, the consequences of the invention? What impact did the steam engine have on the industry and the development of humankind?

The Importance of the Steam Engine

James Watt’s steam engine is an improved version of the Newcomen steam engine. It proved to be highly popular and successful all across the UK and later the whole world. It started the Industrial revolution, which had already began in the 1760s. Historians have pointed out that nothing propelled the word’s ecomy more than the introduction of the steam engine in 1776.

The industrial revolution changed the way that the whole world worked; the steam engine automated many of the processes that were earlier done by hand, and as a consequence, massively decreased production times. The seemingly unstoppable power of the steam engine led to the massive growth of cities and the economy. The workers themselves became the most important part of society. It started a whole new class of people within society – the working class.

The steam engine proved to be an important discovery in many different fields. It was used in chemical manufacturing processes and iron production, it improved the textile industry, and it spurred on further development in other technologies as well. The Industrial Revolution started in England, where many important discoveries and inventions were made. This made the United Kingdom perhaps the most important player on the world market.

James Watt’s steam engine helped Britain establish an empire that spanned from England to India. We still reap the effects of the industrial revolution today In many ways. The whole structure of society changed. As people’s income s increased so did their standard of living. Cities started to grow and became industrialized. During the Industrial Revolution, more than 80% of the whole population worked in factories and specifically in areas that made use of the steam engine.

Watt Becomes a Wealthy Man

Unsurprisingly, the world craved James Watt’s steam engine. The orders for the steam engine increased by the day, which helped Watt to accumulate a lot of wealth. But Watt was not a businessman, and all he wanted to do was what he enjoyed most – inventing and improving his steam engine. In the years that followed, Watt worked on his steam engine and added some important modifications that would further improve the steam engine. It was Boulton who worked as a businessman and started looking for new opportunities to sell more of their innovations.

Watt sought to add the rotary motion to the steam engine since 1781. In 1782, he invented a double-acting engine where the piston pushed and pulled at the same time. Watt did not sleep on his success; instead, he sought to improve his designs and make them even more efficient.

What Can We Learn From James Watt and the Invention of the Steam Engine?

What is there to learn from the story of James Watt and the invention of the steam engine? How can we apply it to our work?

That story about the kettle inspiring Watt to invent the steam engine – do you believe that? In truth, it was Watt’s research, hard work, years of learning and experimenting with steam that earned him this success. The first lesson is to research and learn all the possibilities surrounding your invention ideas.

The second lesson we can apply is to not be lazy once we are successful. Always strive to improve and do more. It was this sort of determination that made Watt so successful.

Sebastian Gold contributed to this story

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