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Historical Notes

James Watt

Born: 1736 ~ Greenock, Scotland
Died: 1819 ~ Heathfield, England
Note: Inventor, mechanical engineer, improved the steam engine

    Working as a mathematical instrument maker, he became interested in the steam engine when he was asked to fix one. The steam engine was first invented by Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen to pump water from coal mines. They were grossly inefficient and very expensive to run. In 1760, Watt added a separate condensing chamber which immensely cut down on the amount of wasted steam in the main cylinder. Additionally, he added sun-and-planet wheels to convert reciprocal motion into rotary motion, plus a centrifugal governor to regulate the speed. He became partner with Matthew Boulton who owned the Soho Engineering Works at Birmingham, and they began manufacturing steam engines for commercial use. As the company prospered, Watt introduced more innovations such as the double-action engine which alternately forced steam into both ends of the cylinder, plus a steam pressure gauge.

    The improvement of the steam engine turned a page in history because formerly hand produced goods by independent craftsmen could now be mass produced in large factories. The Industrial Revolution swept throughout Britain, and reached America in the early to mid 1800's. This new approach to industrialization not only produced a higher volume of goods at a lower price, but it also made these same craftsmen as employees and the general public as consumers more dependent on manufacturers. It also allowed governments the opportunity to regulate many of the goods that were produced, and the manufacturers who produced them. It also created a national appetite for consumption which has not been abated to this day, and promises to threaten the lifestyle of many people and the very existence of many elements of our environment. The electrical unit called a Watt (Voltage x Amperage) is named in his honor.



Additional Resources

Boulton & Watt Engine
Newcomen Library & Museum
Watt's Steam Engine

Written by Ronald J. Gordon as extended information for other major articles

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