James Watt, the steam engine and the day Scotland began to change the world
There is good reason to say that the Industrial Revolution began in Scotland on April 29, 1769. It was then that James Watt of Glasgow officially registered the Letters Patent, numbered 913, for a steam engine with a separate condenser . It was a day that changed Scotland forever. It was a day when Scotland began to change the world.
Steam engines had already existed since 1712, but in a rudimentary way. The first standard model was the Newcomen engine, named after its inventor Thomas Newcomen. It was mainly used to pump water from coal or tin mines in South West England.
The first to arrive in Scotland was probably the Jacobite progressive George Lockhart of Carnwath at his estate of Dryden in Midlothian. It had big drawbacks. It could only be used on one site and was not portable. The equipment remained notoriously faulty and had poor fuel efficiency dependent on large amounts of coal.
The operator of a Newcomen engine needed immediate access not only to the various raw materials but also to cash, which was always scarce in Scotland in the first decades of the Union. Progressive entrepreneurs have often encountered financial problems. It was a danger that could affect established Earth families, not just those who were overconfident in their business acumen. Scotland was also a pioneer in banking and even banks went bankrupt as well.
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There were more modest families like the Watts with at least a solid financial foundation built on local success, in their case in Greenock.
They were strong Presbyterians with a history of devotion to Scottish covenants. Thomas Watt, James’s grandfather, was also a teacher of mathematics, surveying and navigation. In the next generation another James rose into public life, such as it was, of the bustling little burgh and became its principal bailiff in 1751.
James senior had even higher ambitions, international ambitions. He began to trade in the West Indies in slaves and goods produced by slaves. Recent research has shown that he would also involve his inventor son James in this endeavor. We already know how vital slavery was to the fortunes of the commercial elite of enlightened Scotland. Clearly, the Watts saw themselves as part of that elite.
James Watt the Younger was the most vital of all. Without a radical improvement in the power, efficiency and economy of steam engines, as they existed up to the present day in the 18th century, there would never have been sufficient progress in Scottish industry. There had to be some breakthrough. It was Watt’s work.
Watt was born in Greenock in 1736, the son of the shipbuilder and shipowner, and chief bailiff of the busy harbor at a time when seagoing vessels could no longer travel up the River Clyde.
Hanging around his father’s workshops, the boy began to make mathematical instruments. It was not always with the approval of the ascending parent, who disapproved of his “insolence, impertinence and disobedience” and would have preferred him to master Latin and Greek.
Luckily young James didn’t notice anything at all and by the age of 21 he had landed a good job supplying his mathematical instruments to the University of Glasgow. He had no other way to use his skills in the city because he was not allowed to enter his Merchant Guild. This was how Scotland functioned in pre-industrial times. Watt’s 913 patent guaranteed him the legal rights of inventor regardless of what the local merchants said.
It was one of the most important documents in Scottish history. Like the Declaration of Arbroath in the fourteenth century or the Confession of Faith in the sixteenth century, the patent changed the face of the country.
This is not because he actually invented the steam engine, as enthusiastic schoolmasters claimed to their pupils, but because it was the decisive improvement of the Newcomen engine. For this reason, Watt is rightly credited with being the father of steam power that drove the industrial revolution.
Watt was never satisfied but constantly sought improvements in steam engine technology. In fact, he spent years experimenting with a system with a chamber, separate from the main piston, where the vapor could be condensed. He realized that existing designs were wasting too much energy by repeatedly cooling and reheating the cylinder. His improved designs relied on a separate condenser to remove excess waste.
There was another major improvement when Watt finally adapted his motor to produce rotary motion. This has expanded its use far beyond pumping water.
Finally, it had the function of efficiently converting thermal energy, coal that was burned to provide heat, into mechanical energy, which operated the engine parts. This foreshadowed, a century earlier, the notions of energy and thermodynamics which had become commonplace in industrial science during the Victorian era.
As the text of Watt’s patent says, with admirable clarity, “in machines which are to be operated wholly or partly by condensation of steam, the steam must be condensed in vessels separate from the steam vessels or cylinders, although only occasionally communicating with them.
“These vessels I call condensers, and while the engines are running, these condensers must at least be kept as cold as the air in the vicinity of the engines by the application of water or other cold bodies.”
The patent did not take immediate effect because Watt did not have enough money to exploit it. It had started with the support of John Roebuck, head of the Carron Ironworks in Falkirk, who, however, went bankrupt in 1768. Interest in the steam engine was sold to Matthew Boulton of the Soho Manufactory near Birmingham. His experienced workers provided Watt with the precise metalwork needed for his new engines.
Watt was constantly looking for improvements. Soon he and Boulton were making their own fortunes as their steam engines transformed textile mills and just about every other facet of the Industrial Revolution.