James Watt and the Steam Age Revolution

James Watt (17361819)
Painting by Carl Frederik von Breda

On January 5, 1769,  Scottish inventor, mechanical engineer, and chemist James Watt finally received the patent for his steam engine: patent 913 A method of lessening the consumption of steam in steam engines-the separate condenser.

Before James Watt was able to revolutionize Europe’s industries, folks had to find different ways to generate power. While the Romans during the first century BC used undershot water wheels, the Europeans of the Middle Ages improved water power and it was used for forging, sawing or grinding. For places unable to use the flowing water’s advantages, windmills were built but as technological improvements were made all over, these power generators became increasingly inefficient. For many years, various engineers and scientists had experimented with steam. The Greek Hero of Alexandria [5] already experimented with heated water in a sphere during 80 AD, which he attached to “two diametrically opposed, outwardly and tangently extending bent tubes, whose outer ends steam escaped, causing the sphere to rotate.” [1] Other contributors to the development of the steam engine included the Italian physicist Giambattista della Porta at around 1600, the French scientist Denis Papin 100 years later, and Thomas Savery, who could even get a patent for an idea using vacuum to draw up mine water. However, the first usable steam engine was created by Thomas Newcomen, an Englishman, who was able to pump mine water [6]. As Newcomen learned from mine operators their difficulties concerning water flooding mines, he experimented for about 10 years, finding the best solution in a pumping system powered by steam. It revolutionized numerous working processes, but there were still difficulties with his machine, like the piston not fitting in the cylinder and the fact that it was too large and immobile. Also, the machine had a high consumption of coal and while operating, it wasted heat. Through Watt’s improvements on the steam engine, he was able to revolutionize working processes and provided one of the most important sources for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

James Watt grew up in a family of educated people and was enabled a decent education from early years. He learned traditional subjects such as mathematics, Greek or Latin, but was also educated in manual skills. His first attempts to experiment with steam were made by Watt with only 15 years and was known to be a creative and investigative boy.

When John Robinson, a professor at the University of Glasgow started motivating Watt to build a model of Newcomen’s engine, he was unstoppable. When demonstrating his model at the university, James Watt noticed several problems with the machine and began experimenting on its improvement. He found out that the “steam condensed inside the cylinder that was being cooled at each stroke“, which caused the loss of a great amount of heat. [1] After a few years of research and hard work, James Watt was able to build a highly improved engine using the separate condenser, which made the steam engine a lot more efficient and usable. It saved heat and lowered the amount of consumed coal by about 70%.

Manufacturers and businessmen noticed Watt’s efforts and it took only until the 1790’s and his engines completely replaced Newcomen’s. Because of Watt, many mines that were about to being closed came back to life and large scale processes became possible at places unable to make use of water or wind energy. An industry, the engine was at first majorly useful in was the textile industry. It improved Britain’s economic situation, because the textile industry depicted a major part of Britain’s overall production. The usage of Watt’s steam engine expanded globally and advanced industries and economies world wide, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture by John Merriman from Yale University talking about the Industrial Revolution as part of his series on the European Civilization of 1648-1945.

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