A scientist, an inventor, and a visionary, who never gave up on his faith in his ventures despite severe financial, time, and design constraints. His desire to make instruments and his ability to build his own steam engine led to the Industrial Revolution. The man who developed the concept of horsepower. Meet James Watt, the father of the Watt Steam Engine.
Born: 19 January 1736, Greenock, Renfrewshire Scotland
Died: 25 August 1819, Handsworth, West Midlands, United Kingdom
James Watt had experienced many obstacles on his way to success, which he overcame through hard work. His life achievements have served as milestones for future generations. Let’s take a closer look at his life from ashes to glory:
- Childhood: James Watt was born on 19 January 1736 in Greenock, Renfrewshire. He was the eldest among the five surviving children of Agnes Muirhead (1703–1755) and James Watt (1698–1782). Due to his ill health, which included migraines and toothaches, James was mostly educated at home by his mother during his childhood. Later, he attended Greenock Grammar School.
- James also learnt carpentry and navigational aids on ships such as quadrants, compasses, and telescopes from his father, who was a carpenter and shipwright who established himself as a merchant and ship-owner.
- In 1754, Watt moved to Glasgow, Scotland, with an intention of setting up his own instrument-making business. There he met Robert Dick, a scientist at University of Glasgow, who was impressed with Watt’s fundamental instrument-making skills, but advised him to go to London for more training. Watt completed two years of instrument-making training and returned to Glasgow in 1756.
- A Desire to Make Instruments: Watt had set up his own instrument manufacturing shop in Glasgow, but he was experiencing difficulties finding enough work as the other instrument makers were somewhat unfriendly. He began making musical instruments in order to avoid competition. Surprisingly, his musical instruments were outperformed all existing models available in the market and business began to grow. In 1758, he received funding from an architect to construct a new shop in the heart of Glasgow.
- Building Professional Relaionships: In 1759, James formed a partnership with John Craig, an architect and businessman, to manufacture musical instruments and toys. This partnership lasted for the six years, and employed up to sixteen people.
- Development of steam engine: One day in 1763, the University Professor John Anderson brought Watt a new problem. The University built a lab-scale model of the Newcomen steam engine to figure out why the full-scale pumps needed so much steam. Watt identified the flaw in the model, caused by an undersized boiler that couldn’t provide enough steam to reheat the cylinder after a few strokes.
- Watt spent months thinking about the problem and conducting several experiments. He learnt a lot about steam properties, and independently discovered latent heat of vaporization in one of his experiments.
- Business Partnership: Watt met John Roebuck, an industrialist who owned coal leases. After seeing the model in action, Roebuck decided to fund the creation of a full-scale engine. Roebuck also financed Watt’s engine patent which was granted in 1769. Roebuck agreed to pay off all of Watt’s instrument shop debts in exchange for a two-thirds share of the profits from the innovation.
- Failure: Due to the shortage of skilled man forces, Watt’s dream couldn’t become the reality any sooner. He, disappointed and in desperate need of money, left the instrument-making business in 1771. His partner Roebuck went bankrupt in 1772.
- Silver Lining: Matthew Boulton, a businessman acquired the assets of John Roebuck including the patent of Watt. Boulton provided every single instrument and helped that Watt required completing his dream. Watt started working with Boulton since May 1774.
- Watt’s engine used a minimal amount of fuel as compared to the Newcomen engine, eventually, it was welcomed hands on by the purchasers.
- Boulton encouraged James Watt to build more engines for different industries like the weaving industry and grinding industry. He also pioneered the world’s first modern steam engine, known as Watt Steam Engine in 1776.
- Watt was betrayed by many, a worker sold his blueprints and later another employee Edward Bull, who started his own venture.
- Other Inventions: Watt’s other significant discoveries and inventions include a copying machine and an improved manufacturing process for chlorine bleaching agent. He also developed the concept of horsepower to compare the output of steam engines with the power of draft horses. In 1892, ‘Watt’, the unit to measure power incorporated in the International System of Units (SI), it is named in honour of James Watt.
- Marriage: On 16 July 1764, Watt married his cousin Margaret Miller. They had two children, Margaret (1767–1796) and James (1769–1848). In 1773, his wife Margaret died. In 1775, he married Ann MacGregor.
- He devoted his remaining years to research after taking retirement in 1800. Watt, aged 83, died on 25 August 1819, and was buried alongside Matthew Boulton, at St Mary’s Church Birmingham.
The post is a part of a B’day Series where we celebrate the birthday of renowned personalities from the Tech Industry, very frequently. The series includes Entrepreneurs, C-level Executives, innovators or renewed leaders who moved the industry with their exponential skill set and vision. The intent is to highlight the person’s achievements and touch base the little known, but interesting, part of his life. You can see the list of all earlier celebrated tech personalities, including Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayor, Sean Parker, Andy Rubin, Julian Assange, Sir Richard Branson, Sergey Brin by following this link or subscribe to your daily newsletter.