lIf any one person can be said to have been responsible for kickstarting the industrial revolution of the 18th to 19th Centuries, a good argument could be made for that man being James Watt. Born in Greenock in Scotland in 1736, the story tells that as a sickly young child he watched the saucepan lids bobbling up and down as their contents boiled, and instantly reognised the potential power of steam.

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 achieve them.

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.

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