James Watt and Steam Power (Commentary)

James Watt and Steam Power (Commentary)

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This commentary is based on the classroom activity: James Watt and Steam Power

Q1: Describe the different methods that mine-owners used to remove water from their mines in the 18th century. Explain why the mine-owners were always looking for new methods to remove this water.

A1: Mine-owners used several different methods to remove water from their mines in the first half of the 18th century. Methods included: (i) pumps worked by windmills; (ii) teams of men and animals carrying buckets; (iii) Thomas Savery's pumping machine. In the second half of the 18th century the steam-engines invented by Thomas Newcomen and James Watt became the main way water was removed from mines. Mine-owners were always looking for cheaper and more effective ways of removing water from their mines.

Q2: Describe what is taking place in source 7.

A2: The painting shows a Newcomen steam-engine being used in a coal-mine, a weighbridge and a smoking chimney. In the middle of the picture, a man leads two donkeys containing baskets of coal. On the left another man pushes a wheelbarrow of coal. Men can be seen loading coal into baskets and wagons for transport. Two horses are to his right, while another two - attached to a coal filled wagon - graze behind.

Q3: What was the main form of power used to drive textile machines in the years: (i) 1775-1785; (ii) 1795-1805?

A3: (i) water-power; (ii) steam-power.

Q4: Why did the British government pass an act of Parliament on Watt's steam-engine in 1775 (source 5)? Why did some people disagree with this policy.

A4: The British government passed an Act of Parliament on the steam-engine in 1775 in an attempt to make sure Watt was rewarded for his invention. The government was aware that Watt's steam-engine would provide considerable benefit for British manufacturers. In time this would mean higher tax revenue for the government. The government hoped that when people realised that large profits could be made from successful inventions this would inspire others to invent new machines.

Some people believed that the government was wrong to give Watt a 25 year monopoly of producing steam-engines. As Edward Baines points out in source 3, this stopped other inventors from improving Watt's steam-engine. Baines therefore believed that if the 1775 Act had not been passed the textile industry would have grown even faster during the last quarter of the 18th century.

Q5: Study source 13. Why were handloom weavers unhappy when they found out about Watt's steam-engine?

A5: The picture shows that Watt's steam-engine could power several machines at the same time. The output of these machines were far greater than those achieved by weavers using a handloom. Handloom weavers realised that with the invention of Watt's steam-engine it was just a matter of time before they would be unable to sell their cloth. As factory owners preferred to employ women and children to work their machines, the handloom weavers faced the prospect of falling wages and an increase in unemployment.

Q6: Give as many reasons as you can why James Watt became a very rich man.

A6: James Watt became a rich man because he invented a successful steam-engine. After Parliament passed an act that prevented others from producing similar machines, Watt had a virtual monopoly over the production of these machines. This meant that Watt did not have to worry about other companies undercutting his prices. Watt's decision to charge a premium based on the profits obtained by companies using his steam-engine also helped him to become rich. Source 14 claims that when he died in 1819 he left over £60,000 (£81,000,000 in today's money).

Q7: Study source 15. How does this account of the invention of the steam engine differ from those in history textbooks produced in Britain? What does it tell you about the problems of using your own country's textbooks?

A7: British textbooks rarely mention Ivan Polsunov's steam-engine. British history textbooks tend to concentrate on British inventions. The same is true of other countries. Sometimes this nationalist approach results in history books that are inaccurate. For example, many history textbooks claim that in 1797 Edward Jenner was the first person to develop a vaccine that protected people from smallpox. In fact, the Chinese had developed a successful vaccine against smallpox in the early 1600s.

British engineer Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729) built the first steam engine in 1712. This device was used to extract water accumulated in the mines. At the time of Watt’s birth, there were about 100 Newcomen machines in England and it was used in other countries as well.

Newcomen’s invention was based on the principle of pushing a piston with atmospheric pressure in a large, vertical cylinder. This could only happen if the vacuum was created inside the cylinder, at the bottom of the piston. Newcomen obtained the required vacuum by condensing the steam in the cylinder back into the water. This meant only a small fraction of the steam volume. The steam was filled in the cylinder through a series of valves, followed by spraying cold water on it to condense the steam. The cylinder was cooling down with each landing of the piston. However, the steam waiting for the next landing was reheating it again. This paradox greatly reduced the efficiency of the machine. This is the case that James Watt was paying attention to in 1765 that day.

James Watt was born in Greenock, Scotland, on the banks of the Clyde River, west of Glasgow. His father was a shipbuilder. Thanks to his father’s toolbox, Watt had been a skilled craftsman since his childhood. After working in London, and Glasgow for a year, he learned to make mathematical tools such as theodolite and compass. His dream was to open his own business. After repairing a broken instrument of a professor at the University of Glasgow, James Watt earned a room at the university to use as a workshop. The future-scientist began to earn money by making and selling mathematical and musical instruments.

Education and training

Watt’s father, the treasurer and magistrate of Greenock, ran a successful ship- and house-building business. A delicate child, Watt was taught for a time at home by his mother later, in grammar school, he learned Latin, Greek, and mathematics. The source for an important part of his education was his father’s workshops, where, with his own tools, bench, and forge, he made models (e.g., of cranes and barrel organs) and grew familiar with ships’ instruments.

Deciding at age 17 to be a mathematical-instrument maker, Watt first went to Glasgow, where one of his mother’s relatives taught at the university, and then, in 1755, to London, where he found a master to train him. Although his health broke down within a year, he had learned enough in that time “to work as well as most journeymen.” Returning to Glasgow, he opened a shop in 1757 at the university and made mathematical instruments (e.g., quadrants, compasses, scales). He met many scientists and became a friend of British chemist and physicist Joseph Black, who developed the concept of latent heat. In 1764 he married his cousin Margaret Miller, who, before she died nine years later, bore him six children.

English Richard Trevithick develops a smaller, lighter steam engine and places this device on the wheel, creating a “road locomotive”. It was the world’s first locomotive.

Steamboat – Robert Fulton

In the USA, Robert Fulton managed to apply steam power technology to the cruise ship (first steam-powered vessel) and the ship succeeded in fighting against the currents.

James Watt (1736 - 1819)

James Watt, c.1788 © Watt was a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer, renowned for his improvements in steam engine technology.

James Watt was born in Greenock on 18 January 1736. His father was a prosperous shipwright. Watt initially worked as a maker of mathematical instruments, but soon became interested in steam engines.

The first working steam engine had been patented in 1698 and by the time of Watt's birth, Newcomen engines were pumping water from mines all over the country. In around 1764, Watt was given a model Newcomen engine to repair. He realised that it was hopelessly inefficient and began to work to improve the design. He designed a separate condensing chamber for the steam engine that prevented enormous losses of steam. His first patent in 1769 covered this device and other improvements on Newcomen's engine.

Watt's partner and backer was the inventor John Roebuck. In 1775, Roebuck's interest was taken over by Matthew Boulton who owned an engineering works in Birmingham. Together he and Watt began to manufacture steam engines. Boulton & Watt became the most important engineering firm in the country, meeting considerable demand. Initially this came from Cornish mine owners, but extended to paper, flour, cotton and iron mills, as well as distilleries, canals and waterworks. In 1785, Watt and Boulton were elected fellows of the Royal Society.

By 1790, Watt was a wealthy man and in 1800 he retired and 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 the steam pressure inside the engine.

Watt died on 19 August 1819. A unit of measurement of electrical and mechanical power - the watt - is named in his honour.

Progress And Legacy

Wikimedia Commons Advertisement for James Watt & Co. pumping engines.

Watt had other inventions, too. In 1780, he patented a copy machine.

Powered by steam engines, Boulton and Watt’s ironworks became the first machine-building factory in the world. By 1800, 84 British cotton mills used Boulton and Watt engines in addition to wool and flour mills. Boulton and Watt essentially held a monopoly over the steam-powered engine business by this point.

Steam-powered ships and steam locomotives connected the globe and cut travel time to a fraction. Steam-powered factories increased production exponentially. James Watt’s contribution most likely went far beyond anything he could have imagined.

By 1790, he and Boulton could retire their business to their sons as two wealthy, well-known men. Boulton died at age 80 in 1809 and Watt followed on Aug. 19, 1819, at the age of 83. The two pioneering partners were buried side-by-side.

For most, the name Watt is synonymous with the unit of electrical power that is named after him. Yet thanks to him steam power made a massive impact on modern life and remains an integral part of power generation to this day.

After this look at James Watt and the invention of the Watt steam engine, check out these famous inventors who don’t even deserve credit for their most famous inventions. Then read up on Fridtjof Nansen, the Nobel Prize-winning explorer who was the first to cross Greenland.

Finding the Trouble

Watt had been thinking about steam for four or five years before he saw one of Newcomen's engines. Then it was only a model of one, brought to him from the university for repair. When he had repaired the model, he started it to going. It made a few strokes and stopped. There was no more steam. The boiler seemed big enough, so he blew up the fire. The engine now ran all right, but it required much fuel and used up quantities of steam, though the load on the side of the pump was light. Most men would have thought nothing of this, and would have sent the model back to the university. But that was not Watt's way. Everything he did not understand was for him a subject for study, and he never stopped until he understood. So he set to work to discover why the engine used so much steam.

Steam was used, you will remember, to make a vacuum in the cylinder. Watt found that to drive out the air and water, enough steam had to be let into the cylinder to fill it four times. Why was this? First, the cylinder was exposed to the air, which chilled it. The cold cylinder itself, before it was warm, changed considerable steam into water. Second, cold water was poured into the cylinder to condense the steam, and this made the cylinder cold again. Watt estimated that three fourths of all the steam used was thus wasted in heating and reheating the cylinder. Here was the trouble with Newcomen's engine. Watt saw that, to remedy this defect, a way must be found to keep the cylinder always as hot as the steam which entered it, and the vacuum must be made in the cylinder, without cooling it.

James Watt and Steam Power (Commentary) - History

[From Samuel Smiles's Self-Help (1859). Text courtesy of Professor Professor Mitsuharu Matsuoka of Nagoya University, Japan. Web version by GPL.]

att was one of the most industrious of men and the story of his life proves, what all experience confirms, that it is not the man of the greatest natural vigour and capacity who achieves the highest results, but he who employs his powers with the greatest industry and the most carefully disciplined skill — the skill that comes by labour, application, and experience. Many men in his time knew far more than Watt, but none laboured so assiduously as he did to turn all that he did know to useful practical purposes. He was, above all things, most persevering in the pursuit of facts. He cultivated carefully that habit of active attention on which all the higher working qualities of the mind mainly depend. Indeed, Mr. Edgeworth entertained the opinion, that the difference of intellect in men depends more upon the early cultivation of this HABIT OF ATTENTION, than upon any great disparity between the powers of one individual and another.

Two Victorian sculptures of Watt. Click on thumbnails for larger images.

Even when a boy, Watt found science in his toys. The quadrants lying about his father's carpenter's shop led him to the study of optics and astronomy his ill health induced him to pry into the secrets of physiology and his solitary walks through the country attracted him to the study of botany and history. While carrying on the business of a mathematical-instrument maker, he received an order to build an organ and, though without an ear for music, he undertook the study of harmonics, and successfully constructed the instrument. And, in like manner, when the little model of Newcomen's steam-engine, belonging to the University of Glasgow, was placed in his hands to repair, he forthwith set himself to learn all that was then known about heat, evaporation, and condensation, — at the same time plodding his way in mechanics and the science of construction, — the results of which he at length embodied in his condensing steam-engine.

For ten years he went on contriving and inventing — with little hope to cheer him, and with few friends to encourage him. He went on, meanwhile, earning bread for his family by making and selling quadrants, making and mending fiddles, flutes, and musical instruments measuring mason-work, surveying roads, superintending the construction of canals, or doing anything that turned up, and offered a prospect of honest gain. At length, Watt found a fit partner in another eminent leader of industry — Matthew Boulton, of Birmingham a skilful, energetic, and far-seeing man, who vigorously undertook the enterprise of introducing the condensing- engine into general use as a working power and the success of both is now matter of history.

Many skilful inventors have from time to time added new power to the steam-engine and, by numerous modifications, rendered it capable of being applied to nearly all the purposes of manufacture — driving machinery, impelling ships, grinding corn, printing books, stamping money, hammering, planing, and turning iron in short, of performing every description of mechanical labour where power is required. One of the most useful modifications in the engine was that devised by Trevithick, and eventually perfected by George Stephenson and his son, in the form of the railway locomotive, by which social changes of immense importance have been brought about, of even greater consequence, considered in their results on human progress and civilization, than the condensing-engine of Watt.

One of the first grand results of Watt's invention, — which placed an almost unlimited power at the command of the producing classes, — was the establishment of the cotton-manufacture. The person most closely identified with the foundation of this great branch of industry was unquestionably Sir Richard Arkwright, whose practical energy and sagacity were perhaps even more remarkable than his mechanical inventiveness. His originality as an inventor has indeed been called in question, like that of Watt and Stephenson.

Arkwright probably stood in the same relation to the spinning- machine that Watt did to the steam-engine and Stephenson to the locomotive. He gathered together the scattered threads of ingenuity which already existed, and wove them, after his own design, into a new and original fabric. Though Lewis Paul, of Birmingham, patented the invention of spinning by rollers thirty years before Arkwright, the machines constructed by him were so imperfect in their details, that they could not be profitably worked, and the invention was practically a failure. Another obscure mechanic, a reed-maker of Leigh, named Thomas Highs, is also said to have invented the water-frame and spinning-jenny but they, too, proved unsuccessful.

When the demands of industry are found to press upon the resources of inventors, the same idea is usually found floating about in many minds — such has been the case with the steam-engine, the safety- lamp, the electric telegraph, and other inventions. Many ingenious minds are found labouring in the throes of invention, until at length the master mind, the strong practical man, steps forward, and straightway delivers them of their idea, applies the principle successfully, and the thing is done. Then there is a loud outcry among all the smaller contrivers, who see themselves distanced in the race and hence men such as Watt, Stephenson, and Arkwright, have usually to defend their reputation and their rights as practical and successful inventors.

James Watt And The Revolution Of Horsepower (Views: 17906)

Stand beside the finish line of any racetrack in the world and dare yourself to remain unflapped. I’ve tried it’s futile. The pack rounds the turn, and involuntarily your pulse quickens, eyes darting from hooves to outstretched necks to flying manes and tails as the hijinks of the bettors beside you intensify, the final moments igniting in a blaze of speed so fast it almost takes your breath away. You ask yourself: horsepower? Have I just felt the physical effects?

U.S. Equestrian Federation Technical Advisor and Between Rounds columnist Anne Gribbons recently compared her passion for dressage to her husband’s classic car fascination, and it got me wondering about the definition of a term I’ve always found mystifying.

Riders know a racetrack isn’t necessary for the experience. Swing into any saddle, anywhere, and there you are: A captain at the helm—and mercy—of galloping, volatile, impregnable horsepower.

And yet horses under car hoods have always seemed an abstract, incongruous concept. Just how does a stampede translate to cylindrical explosions, firing pistons? Where do you draw the line from harnessed power to mechanical speed?

London Breweries

Anyone who’s visited London’s Hyde Park knows that horses are an essential part of the city’s history. Fabled Rotten Row, established as a carriageway along the park’s south side in the 17th century, is maintained today as a bridleway and used daily by the Household Cavalry and Hyde Park Stables to exercise horses.

But anyone who’s seen the tired eyes and too-long toes of overworked carriage horses knows that city life isn’t always so glamorous.

In 1750, Samuel Whitbread, forefather of the U.K.-based Whitbread hospitality company, built up a booming enterprise: A porter, strong and dark, brewed at his “Goat Brewhouse” had gained such popularity that he’d been forced to relocate to larger headquarters in Chiswell Street, where he established the first mass-production brewery in England.

The driving force behind breakneck production at Whitbread’s brewery?

With porter in demand, horses had succeeded wind, water and oxen as the most effective, highest-yielding power source for Whitbread’s brewery mill, the product of which was the porter’s key ingredient: malt powder.

At the Chiswell Street headquarters, six horses were harnessed to spokes radiating from a central mill shaft and prodded to walk the ceaseless circles that powered the grindstones and reduced malt to its powdered state. Large London breweries like Whitbread’s are estimated to have employed an average of 20 horses for the mill at once, cheaply acquired and cheaply cared for, with even the aged, blind and infirm expected to earn their keep.

Watt’s Initiative

Day in and day out, mill horses circled the shaft, revolving approximately 144 times per hour (2.4 times per minute) if you were to believe the observations of one James Watt, an onlooker of dubious intent.

For Watt, like Whitbread, had a booming enterprise: He’d adapted and marketed a steam engine used to pump water from underground mines and was currently scouting the territory for his latest adaptation—a “rotative” steam engine that he believed could outpace horses as the power source for brewery mills.

The hitch? Marketing. Whitbread and his contemporaries had a good thing going with their cheap and laborious workhorses, but Watt knew he had the means to drastically improve production rates. How could he bring them to his side?

An idea struck him. If he couldn’t convince them outright, he’d have to put the steam engine’s specifications into a context that the brewers understood. Watt had already determined that the horses lapped the mill’s 24-foot diameter circle 144 times per hour. For reasons less clear, he estimated that the horses pushed the shafts with a force of 180 pounds. Using a complicated mathematical equation, Watt deduced that a mill horse could push 32,572 pounds one foot in a minute, which he rounded up to an even 33,000 pounds.

33,000 pounds pushed one foot in a minute. The power of one horse. One horsepower! Watt, whose name is synonymous with the unit of power you’ll find on your light bulbs—named after him due to his contributions to steam power—had derived a unit of measurement that would stand the test of time. To this day, horsepower is used to describe the output of cars, lawn mowers and even household vacuum cleaners.

Steam Revolution

For Whitbread’s purposes, Watt boasted that one of his steam engines could harness the power of 200 horses at once. 200 horses in a single unit, without so much as a stable to house them? Whitbread was sold, and within a year, production had nearly doubled from 90,000 to 143,000 barrels of brew.

Mill horses were kept on briefly should the machines falter, but soon enough Whitbread and his contemporaries had dispensed their teams in favor of Watt’s industrious engines. London’s breweries had never produced more beer.

In fact, the dispensed mill horses were only a harbinger of what was to come, for the fates of horses and steam power have since been invariably intertwined. Can you imagine, 100 years later, a team of those long-toed carriage horses drinking lazily from a sidewalk trough, blissfully unaware of what was coming around the corner for them? Imagine their eyes at first sight of that jolting, popping, exploding automobile, technology at its most advanced, as it rolled fitfully down the avenue to change their lives—and the future.

As a youngster, Chronicle of the Horse staffer Abby Gibbon was mystified by a black-and-white photo of her grandfather competing in a jumper class in the 1960s. He wasn’t wearing a helmet! His saddle pad was non-existent! The wall he was jumping looked like it would knock you down, too, if you happened to knock it! In the past 50 years, the world of equestrianism has evolved, but one thing is still for certain: History is something we all share as horse enthusiasts, and we’ve got to explore it to learn from it. Armed with nearly 75 years of Chronicle archives, Abby plans to unearth articles we haven’t examined for too many years, shedding light on how far we’ve come – and how far we still have to go – as modern horsemen.

Have ideas for historical topics? Questions or curiosities? Please e-mail Abby – she’d love to hear from you!


The Watt engine was a defining development of the Industrial Revolution because of its rapid incorporation into many industries. Because of Watt’s contributions to science and industry, the watt, the unit of power in the International System of Units (SI) equal to one joule of work performed per second (or 1 / 746 horsepower), was named for him. Some scientists argue that the design of the parallel motion (or double-acting engine) in 1784 should serve as the starting point of the Anthropocene Epoch—the unofficial interval of geologic time in which human activity began to substantially alter Earth’s surface, atmosphere, and oceans.

Watch the video: James Watts Steam Engine (May 2022).