lIf any one person can be said to have been responsible for kickstart
of the 18th
a good argument could be made for that man being James Watt.
Born in Greenock
, the story tells that as a sickly young child
he watched the saucepan lids bobbling
up and down as their content
and instantly reognised the potential power
After studying at Glasgow University to be a mathematical instrument maker and
working in London for a few years he was asked to repair a broken-down model of
the type of primitive steam engine which had been invented 50 years earlier by
Thomas Newcomen. These engines worked after a fashion, but were incredibly
inefficient. fuel-hungry and prone to self-destruction. Despite this they were in use
at coal mines and tin mines where they were used to pump out water.
Watt was struck by the inefficiency of these enormous machines. The main problem
was the method used to condense the steam which powered the pistons. Steam was
let into a huge cylinder and then cooled with a jet of cold water. This condensed the
steam and created a vacuum, forcing the piston to plunge down the cylinder and
creating mechanical energy. But the water cooled the container as well and the net
result was that much of the next batch of steam wasted its energy reheating the cold
metal walls of the container.
Watt's solution, like many great inventions, was surprisingly simple: all that was
required was to suck the steam out and cool it in a separate condenser. Despite this
simplicity however it took him nearly 10 years to perfect the design. Boilers and
steam engines were expensive and Watt was not a wealthy man. At one point he came
close to giving up, but was fortunate enough to be financed by Matthew Boulton, a
factory owner from Birmingham, who saw the potential of Watt's plans and helped him
The partnership of Boulton and Watt, and the company they created under the same
name (which continued long after the deaths of both men) demonstrated the world's
first viable condensing boiler in 1776. Orders flooded in: here was a machine not only
many times more efficient than the existing steam engines, but compact enough to be
used within even small-to-medium size factories. A few people even suggested
radical ideas like placing the boiler on a metal frame, which could be carried along
rails using metal wheels.
Within 20 years the Boulton & Watt design was the only steam engine in serious
use, and Boulton boasted that "Britain has gone steam-mill mad". Watt's new machine
literally drove Britain into the forefront of the industrial revolution, and by the time of
his death in 1819 he'd even lived to see a man called George Stephenson create a
steam locomotive. Watt was the first man to coin the term horsepower, and of course
the SI unit of power is named after him.