Throwback thursday: Founder of mechanical engineering, James Watt

The manufacturing industry today would not be the same without the extraordinary men and women who shaped it decades ago. Watch this space to learn about these visionary people and how they revolutionized this industry in their own way.

Here’s our very own version of #throwbackthursday, with inventor, chemist, and entrepreneur, James Watt. 

shutterstock_81842380.jpgJames Watt was a Scottish inventor, mechanical engineer, and chemist renowned for his contribution to steam engine technology, an improvement of the Newcomen steam engineHe was born in Greenock, a Scotch fishing village, in 1736. His father was a prosperous shipwright who held various prominent positions and his grandfather was a well-known mathematician and local schoolmaster. Watt was intelligent, but because of his poor health, was unable to regularly attend school. Hence, his early education was given by his parents.

At the age of eighteen, Watt was sent to Glasgow to work as a maker of mathematical instruments where he soon outgrew the knowledge of the mechanic he was apprenticed to. On the advice of a friend and professor at the University of Glasgow, Doctor Dick, he moved to London. After a year he became seriously ill and was compelled to return home. After regaining his health, Watt returned to Glasgow in 1756 and tried to open a shop. As he had not completed his apprenticeship, he was ineligible according to the shopkeepers and trade unions. However, his friend Doctor Dick supported him and employed him to repair apparatus at the Glasgow University. He worked there until 1760, when he was allowed to open a mechanic shop. After that he also briefly worked as a civil engineer, but he preferred mechanics.

In 1763, he was introduced to the Newcomen steam engine by Professor John Anderson. The university had a model and gave it to Watt for repairs. While working on it, he realized that it was inefficient and so began to improve the design. He designed a separate engine condensing chamber that prevented excessive steam loss. His first patent in 1769 covered this device and other improvements on Newcomen’s engine.

James Watt was 29 when he discovered his idea would work. He later described this moment of inspiration:

“I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon, early in 1765. I had entered the green by the gate at the foot of Charlotte Street and had passed the old washing-house. I was thinking upon the engine at the time, and had gone as far as the herd’s house, when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder. I then saw that I must get rid of the condensed steam and injection-water if I used a jet as in Newcomen’s engine. Two ways of doing this occurred to me. First, the water might be run off by a descending pipe, if an offlet could be got at the depth of thirty-five or thirty-six feet, and any air might be extracted by a small pump. The second was to make the pump large enough to extract both water and air… I had not walked farther than the golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.”

Watt’s partner and backer was John Roebuck, an industrialist. With his help, he devoted much time to troubleshooting and developing a full-scale model. In 1768, Watt met Matthew Boulton (who owned an engineering works shop in Birmingham) during his journey to London to get his patent. He shifted to Birmingham, where together he and Boulton began to manufacture steam engines. Boulton & Watt soon became the most important engineering firm in the UK. In 1785, the Royal Society of Edinburgh made both Watt and Boulton members. Their improved steam engines revolutionized the mining, iron, transport, and manufacturing industries and Watt is considered to be one of the key figures of the Industrial Revolution.

By 1800, James Watt had earned a lot of wealth. He retired, and for the remainder of his life he devoted himself entirely to research work. He patented several other important inventions including the rotary engine, the double-action engine, and the steam indicator, which records steam pressure inside an engine. Watt also spent much of his leisure time making and improving musical instruments. James Watt died in August of1819 in Birmingham.

Did you know?

A Watt, a unit of measurement of electrical and mechanical power, is named after James Watt.

Quick tip: Here’s an easy way to calculate the power in a mechanical system in terms of Watts.

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Learn how to calculate the power in a mechanical system, sign up for a demo of our Gear Fundamentals course today!

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