Biography of James Watt

James Watt (1736-1819) was a Scottish engineer best known for his “invention” (actually, re-design and popularization) of the steam engine. He also pioneered the measurement of power – in his case as horsepower, although the current metric unit of power measurement, the watt, is named after him as well.

– Early Life and Education –

Watt was born on January 19, 1736 in a Firth of Clyde town, to a shipbuilder and baillie. His mother, Agnes Muirhead, was an educated woman, and his paternal grandfather was a teacher. Consequently it is not surprising that James Watt hiself was educated, first at home and then in the local grammar school. He proved uninterested in the classically important academic subjects, such as Green and Latin, but did have a gift for mathematics.

As a young man, Watt left his hometown for London and then Glasgow, working as an instrument-maker. While in his second city, Glasgow, he ran into trouble with the local artisan’s guild (which refused to accept him as an apprentice), but did impress the astronomers at the University of Glasgow with his skill, which earned him a position as instrument designer at the university. This brought Watt into contact with many of the leading lights of the Industrial Revolution, despite the fact that he was neither an accomplished businessman or an educated academic in his own right.

– “Invention” of Steam Power –

Watt is popularly credited with the invention of the steam engine, although in truth he only made improvements (albeit remarkable and systematic ones) to existing designs. The university possessed a version of the Newcomen steam engine, a device invented decades before Watt’s birth and first employed to power water pumps in mines. Watt first worked on repairs to the university’s engine, and then set about designing a heavily modified version of his own. The so-called Watt engines entered service in the mid-1770s in England, just as the American Revolution was occurring across the Atlantic. This engine and its derivatives soon became standard pieces of equipment in mines and factories.

In addition to his pioneering work in steam engines, Watt also experimented in a number of other areas – which are less well remembered. After his steam engine became a commercial success, Watt experimented with letter-copying technology, which he patented and made into a minor success. He also experimented with new processes of manufacturing chlorine.

– Final Years –

In 1800, Watt’s patent on his new steam engine, now owned by a joint company named Boulton & Watt (together with his business partner), expired. He and Boulton then retired and passed the business on to their respective sons. Watt retired to a Welsh estate where he continued to tinker with new devices. He died in Birmingham on August 25, 1819.

The workshop from Watt’s retirement estate was carefully preserved until the house’s demolition after the First World War, at which time it was moved to the Science Museum in London. That museum no longer exhibits the workshop to the public, although it has done so in the past and likely will again in the future.