Against all odds – learning from great projectors: James Watt
With this article we continue a series of pioneers and projectors to learn from. You are all encouraged to write about great projectors out of your context so we may learn from them and improve our way of performing projects. “Projector” is a term introduced by Daniel Defoe in “An Essay upon Projects” (1697). It refers to people that “project” into the future and thus make them real. A true projector is “he who, having by fair and plain principles of sense, honesty, and ingenuity brought any contrivance to a suitable perfection, makes out what he pretends to, picks nobody’s pocket, puts his project in execution, and contents himself with the real produce as the profit of his invention.” History is full of those people, let´s make use of their stories by explaining the narrative behind.
No, James Watt didn’t invent the steam engine. But he turned it into a machine that actually changed the world. 250 years ago, the Scotsman received a patent on his “New invented method of lessening the consumption of steam and fuel in fire engines” [Patent number GB176900913A]. The industrialisation of the world began with Watts’ reworking of the steam engine.
James Watt (1736-1819) was a Scottish inventor, mechanical engineer, and chemist. While working as an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, Watt became interested in the technology of steam engines. It was as early as around 1700, when Denis Papin and Thomas Savery designed steam-driven pumps to remove water from mines. However, their machines did not go beyond the experimental stage. Twelve years later, Thomas Newcomen succeeded in designing the first usable steam engine. In this engine, a piston in a cylinder was pressed by a steam jet and pulled upwards by a pump linkage. The steam heated the air in the cylinder and allowed it to expand. The cold water was then injected to cool the air in the cylinder. A partial vacuum was created, which pulled the piston down again slightly, but above all the air pressure from above was effective. Then steam could be supplied again and the cycle began again. The same cylinder had to be heated and cooled for each piston stroke. The problem with these machines: low efficiency and enormous fuel consumption.
James Watt realised that the existing engine designs wasted a great deal of energy by repeatedly cooling and reheating their cylinders. Watt introduced a design enhancement, the separate condenser, which avoided this waste of energy and radically improved the power, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of steam engines. Eventually he adapted his engine to produce rotary motion, greatly broadening its use beyond pumping water. Watt attempted to commercialise his invention, but experienced great financial difficulties until he entered a partnership with Matthew Boulton in 1775. This partnership was hugely successful and lasted for twenty-five years. James Watt became a wealthy man and could continue with his endeavours.
For example, Watt developed a portable copy machine. Before 1780 there was no good method for making copies of letters or drawings. The only method sometimes used was a mechanical one using linked multiple pens. Watt at first experimented with improving this method, instead decided to try to physically transfer some ink from the front of the original to the back of another sheet, moistened with a solvent, and pressed to the original. The second sheet had to be thin, so that the ink could be seen through it when the copy was held up to the light, thus reproducing the original exactly. Watt started to develop the process in 1779, and made many experiments to formulate the ink, select the thin paper, to devise a method for wetting the special thin paper, and to make a press suitable for applying the correct pressure to effect the transfer. Soon he had enough success to patent the process a year later.
From an early age Watt was very interested in chemistry. In late 1786, while in Paris, he witnessed an experiment by Berthollet in which he reacted hydrochloric acid with manganese dioxide to produce chlorine. He had already found that an aqueous solution of chlorine could bleach textiles, and had published his findings, which aroused great interest among many potential rivals. When Watt returned to Britain, he began experiments along these lines with hopes of finding a commercially viable process. He discovered that a mixture of salt, manganese dioxide and sulphuric acid could produce chlorine, which Watt believed might be a cheaper method. He passed the chlorine into a weak solution of alkali, and obtained a turbid solution that appeared to have good bleaching properties. Despite the first success, many others began to experiment with improving the process, which still had many shortcomings, not the least of which was the problem of transporting the liquid product. James Watt’s rivals soon overtook him in developing the process, and he dropped out of the race.
Wa.tt did not attend school regularly; initially he was mostly schooled at home by his mother. He exhibited great manual dexterity, engineering skills and an aptitude for mathematics. After the passing of his mother and his father he tried to get an employment as instrument maker, however, due to the fact that he had not served at least seven years as an apprentice, the Glasgow Guild of Hammermen (which had jurisdiction over any artisans using hammers) blocked his application. He tried hard to find an employer and eventually found Alexander Macfarlane, who hat special instruments to care about. James Watt restored them to working order and was later offered the opportunity to set up a small workshop within the university, the beginning of a great career.
James Watt’s improvement of the steam engine made him the father of the industrial revolution, which set world history on a new course. Besides other inventions he developed the concept of horsepower, and the unit of power, the watt, was named after him.
During his retirement, Watt continued to develop new inventions though none was as significant as his steam engine work.