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James Watt was born in Greenock, Scotland in 1736. His father was an
instrument maker, ship-owner and merchant. As a boy Watt suffered from
ill health, but he showed considerable flair for geometry and as a
In 1753 he moved to Glasgow and subsequently to London in
1755 to become a mathematical instrument maker.
On returning to Glasgow in 1757, he became Mathematical Instrument
Maker to Glasgow University. He knew several academics, including
Joseph Black from whom he learned the principles governing heat and
steam. In 1764 he repaired a model of a Newcomen steam engine at the
University and this developed his interest in steam technology. Watt
introduced a separate condenser into the Newcomen engine in 1765 which
improved its efficiency as a pumping machine.
Archives of Soho
Soho House Museum
1736 - 1819 (c.)
The father of steam engines
He was aware of its
commercial possibilities and joined with John Roebuck, a leading
Scottish iron master, to manufacture it.
Watt took out a patent in
1769 for "A New Invented Method of Lessening the Consumption of Steam
and Fuel in Fire Engines." Roebuck’s business was unable to develop
the engine and the partnership was dissolved in 1772.
years Watt worked as a surveyor for canals, rivers and harbours.
Watt left Scotland in 1774 for Birmingham. William Small had already
introduced him to Boulton and he entered into a partnership with
Boulton in 1775. Boulton’s Soho Works had the expertise to build and
market the improved steam pump. Watt participated in Lunar Society
During the 1780s he developed several inventions which
improved the steam engine, including a rotary motion (1781), a
double-acting engine, in which the piston pulls and pushes (1782) and
the centrifugal governor for automatic control of the engine’s speed
(1786). The rotary motion enabled the engine to power factory
machinery. In 1800 he retired from the firm of Boulton and Watt, but
he continued to pursue inventions.
Watt died at his home, Heathfield House in Handsworth, in 1819 at the
age of 84. His contribution to the emergence of Britain’s engineering
industry is massive, but without Boulton’s business expertise and
Darwin’s psychological support – Watt suffered from depression – his
significance might not have been so clear.