James Watt

James Watt Photo

James Watt was an engineering magnate and inventor who improved the Newcomen steam engine in ways that were vital to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution throughout the world.

Watt was born on 19th January 1736 in Greenock, Scotland. He was mostly home schooled by his mother however he did attend Greenock Grammar School later on. His mathematical and engineering dexterity were superb from the very beginning. At 18 he moved to London where he studied instrument making before returning to Scotland a year later. He settled in Glasgow and set up his own instrument making business. He faced some problems because he had not learned as an apprentice for at least 7 years according to the rules. So even though there was no one else with the mathematical instrument making skills as him, his application was blocked. Fortunately for him some astronomical instruments came to the University of Glasgow which needed the attention of an expert such as Watt. He fixed them perfectly and these appliances were set up in the Macfarlane Observatory. After this he was offered to make a workshop with in the university premises which he began in 1757.

The Newcomen steam engines got Watt’s attention in 1759. The same design was being used to pump water from mines for almost 50 years. James Watt started experimenting with steam and worked out ways in which the steam was not wasted and efficiency could improve significantly. The first engines were set up in commercial enterprises in 1776. Watt continued to make further improvements to the design during the next decade. He got his designs patented in 1775, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1784 and 1788. James Watt was the first person to experiment with ways of making photocopies using multiple pens. He did several experiments such as literally trying to move the ink from one paper to another. Finally in 1780 he succeeded in getting a patent for his development. Watt was very interested in chemistry and did numerous experiments in this field. He was the first to find out that an aqueous solution of chlorine can be used as bleach for fabric. He also discovered a cheaper way of producing chlorine.

Watt’s achievements were rightfully honored in his time. He was made the fellow of the ‘Royal Society of Edinburgh’ in 1784. In 1787 he was selected as a member of the Batavian Society for Experimental Philosophy and two years later as member of the prestigious group the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers. Watt was awarded with an honorary degree of Doctor of Law from the University of Glasgow. He was made the Corresponding Member of the French Academy and Foreign Associate in 1814. The unit of power, the ‘watt’, is named after James Watt. He was one of the 7 inaugural inductees to the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame in 2011. His contributions to the steam engine are so great that he is sometimes mistaken to be its creator. Watt was also a civil engineer and helped in the creation of many canal routes. He died on 19th August 1819 in Heathfield, England.