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On this day in history in 1819, died James Watt.
Watt was an inventor and engineer who turned the course of the Industrial Revolution by redesigning the steam engine.
James Watt was born on 19th January 1736, at Greenock, the son of an influential ship builder, who was treasurer and town magistrate. A delicate child, he was home taught before eventually transferring to the grammar school, where he learned Latin, Greek, and mathematics. An important part of his education took place in his father's workshop, where he learned to made nautical artefacts and grew familiar with ships' instruments. At the age of nineteen, he was sent to Glasgow to learn the trade of a mathematical-instrument maker, and later moved to London to improve his knowledge.
In 1757, Watt returned to Glasgow, where he established an instrument-making business, and soon gained a reputation as a quality engineer. He had employment on the Caledonian Canal and was engaged in the enterprise to deepen the Forth. In 1763, he was sent a Newcomen steam engine for repair and, while fixing the machine, found that he could make it more efficient, by installing a separate condenser, to prevent the loss of latent heat. He then worked on his own design for a steam engine which he hoped could be operated to pump water from mines, allowing seams to be dug deeper.
Watt first sought a backer to provide the finance for the engines production. His first sponsor went bankrupt so he took his idea to Matthew Boulton, a successful Birmingham factory owner, who set about producing and distributing Watt's steam-engines, mostly to collieries for pumping water from the mines. Watt's machines proved to be 4 times as powerful as Newcomen’s original design. He continued to experiment with new designs and, in 1781, produced a rotary-motion engine, an improvement on the vertical action machine, which was ideal for draining mines, but good for little else. The new invention was taken up by Richard Arkwright, who used it to power his textile factories and, one by one, other manufacturers soon followed his lead. By 1800, there were over 500 of Watt's machines in British mines and factories.
In 1755, Watt took out a patent on his design and for the next fifty-five years, the Boulton & Watt Company had a monopoly over the production of steam-engines. Watt charged his customers on a sliding scale for the use of his engine, dependant on the power that they provided. The steam engine replaced the horse in Arkwright’s textile mills, and so Watt calculated the power exerted by a horse and described his machines in comparison to a horse, and so invented the term horse-power.
There exists a legend that says that, as a child, Watt used to sit by the kitchen range and watch the kettle boil, and when he saw that steam pressured open the kettle lid, was inspired to harness the power of steam. This legend is nothing but hot air, as steam power was already in use before Watt’s time. He took the idea and improved it so that it became available on a major scale.
Watt grew rich by his inventions and retired in 1800, when his patents expired. He was married twice and had 7 children, 4 of whom lived to adulthood. He was awarded a doctorate by Glasgow University and made an associate of the French Academy of Sciences. In 1814, he declined a baronetcy, on the grounds that he wanted his son to make his own way in the world and not be encumbered with an inherited title. He died on 25th August 1819, at his home, Heathfield Hall, near Birmingham, and is buried in Handsworth. [St. Mary's Church, Hamstead Road, Handsworth, Birmingham, West Midlands B20 2RB]
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