Hidden Treasures - James Watt

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James Watt.

James WattIn this advanced age we know the power of steam, and what a great factor it is as a help in carrying on the daily work of life. Yet, it is only during the last century that men have discovered to how many purposes it can be applied.

James Watt, the great utilizer of steam, was born in Greenock, Scotland, January 19th, 1736. His father was a carpenter and general merchant in Greenock, and seems to have been highly respected, for he was long a member of the council, and for a time, magistrate. James was a sickly child, unable to attend school with regularity, hence was left to follow his own inclinations; becoming his own instructor, to a great extent. The boy was early furnished with tools by his father, and[414] with them found amusement and instruction. He early manifested a taste for mathematics and mechanics, studied botany, chemistry, mineralogy, natural philosophy, and at fourteen constructed an electrical machine.

At the age of eighteen he was sent to Glasgow to learn to make mathematical instruments, but for some reason he went to London the same year, engaging with one Morgan, working at the same trade. Ill-health, however, compelled his return home about a year later. He had made great use of his time while in London, and after his health had improved somewhat he again visited Glasgow with the desire of establishing himself there, but met with opposition from some who considered him an intruder upon their privileges. The Principal of the college, appreciating his fine tact and ingenuity, offered him protection and gave him an apartment for carrying on his business within their precinct, with the title of "Mathematical Instrument Maker to the University." But this location was unfavorable for his business. He was scarcely able to make a living, however, the five or six years he passed in those quarters were well employed in investigations, and during the time he unmistakably manifested rare ability.

As soon as possible he secured a better situation in town, and after this change did much better, still it is said: "He had to eke out his living by repairing fiddles, which he was able to do, though he had no ear for music," also, in doing any mechanical piece of work that came in his way; no work requiring ingenuity or the application of scientific knowledge seems to have baffled him. But he kept studying, devoting his evenings and spare moments to the mastery of German, Italian, mastered some of the sciences, learned to sketch, was a superior[415] model-maker; and, if his profession had been defined at the time he first turned his attention to steam, having constructed an improved organ, he would have been spoken of as a musical-instrument maker.

In 1858 he began his experiments with steam as a propelling power for land carriages, which he temporarily abandoned, and did not patent a road engine until 1784. In 1767 he assumed a new occupation, for in that year he was employed to make the surveys and prepare the estimates for a projected canal to connect the Forth and Clyde. This project fell through for the time being, as it failed to gain the sanction of Parliament, but Watt had now made a beginning as civil engineer, and henceforth he obtained a good deal of employment in this capacity. He superintended the surveys and engineering works on the Monkland Collieries Canal to Glasgow, deepening the Clyde, improving the harbors of Ayr, Port, Glasgow, and Greenock; building bridges and other public works his final survey being for the Caledonia Canal.

During this period he had invented an improved micrometer, and also continued his experiments with steam as a motive power. Perhaps it would be interesting to some of our readers to know how Watt tested the power of steam. The implements with which he performed his experiments were of the cheapest kind. Apothecaries' vials, a glass tube or two, and a tea-kettle enabled him to arrive at some very important conclusions. By attaching a glass tube to the nose of the tea-kettle he conducted the steam into a glass of water, and by the time the water came to the boiling point, he found its volume had increased nearly a sixth part; that is, one measure of water in the form of steam can raise about[416] six measures of water to its own heat. It would be impossible in our allotted space to tell fully of the many experiments James Watt made. It is needless to say that his success came by slow and discouraging channels, so slow, indeed, that most men would have given up long before.

His reputation was assailed by jealous rivals, his originality denied, and his rights to various patents vehemently contested. He was many times disappointed in the workings of his own machines, and was obliged to throw away pieces of machinery from which he had expected much, while with others he had perfect success. His experiments finally resulted in his invention of the condensing engine. Now, he struggled for years, through poverty and every imaginable difficulty, to make a practical application of his improvements, doing work as a surveyor in order to support himself.

In 1769 he became a partner of Mathew Boulton, a large hardware dealer and manufacturer, of Birmingham, England. Previously Mr. Boulton had built engines after the plans of Savery, hence, he undoubtedly discerned the great improvement over all engines then in use, that this new discovery was sure to prove. He was a man of wealth, and, in all probability, his personal knowledge of such matters greatly aided his faith. No other can be given, for he was obliged to advance over $229,000 before Watt had so completely perfected his engine that its operations yielded profit. But his confidence was not misplaced. The immense Birmingham manufactory, which employed over one thousand hands, was ultimately driven to its utmost capacity to supply the constantly increasing demand for steam engines. It was first applied to coinage in 1783, from thirty to[417] forty thousand milled coins being struck off in an hour as a test. Boulton & Watt sent two complete mints to St. Petersburg, and for many years executed the entire copper coinage of England.

Watt was the first to conceive the idea of warming buildings by steam. He was the first to make a copying-press; he also contrived a flexible iron pipe with ball and socket joints, to adapt it to the irregular riverbed, for carrying water across the Clyde. At the time of his death he was fellow of the Royal Societies of London, and Edinburgh correspondent of the French Institute, and foreign associate of the Academy of Sciences. He was buried beside Boulton, in Handsworth Church; his statue, by Chantery, is in Westminister Abbey. The pedestal bears the following inscription:

"Not to perpetuate a name Which must endure while the peaceful arts flourish, But to show That mankind have learned to honor those Who best deserve their gratitude, The King, His Ministers, and many of the Nobles And Commoners of the Realm, Raised this Monument to James Watt, Who, directing the force of an original Genius, Early exercised in philosophic research, To the improvement of The Steam Engine, Enlarged the resources of his Country, Increased the power of man, and rose to an eminent place Among the most illustrious followers of Science And the real benefactors of the World. Born at Greenock, MDCCXXXVI, Died at Heathfield, in Staffordshire, MDCCCXIX."

[418] The properties of steam had been known to a certain extent for centuries. In the seventeenth century attention was frequently directed by ingenious workers to the uses of steam in performing simple but laborious occupations, such as pumping water out of the mines. To other purposes steam was imperfectly applied, but it remained for Watt to make more practical and efficient use of it.

This, indeed, is the history of almost every useful art. A discovery, which, after it is known, seems so simple that every one wonders why it remained hidden for so many years, yet proves simple enough to immortalize the name of the fortunate inventor. It is said there was hardly a physical science or one art with which Watt was not intimately acquainted. His philosophical judgment kept pace with his ingenuity. He studied modern languages, and was acquainted with literature. His memory was extremely tenacious, and whatever he once learned he always had at his command; and yet this brave earnest worker and gifted man was a sufferer from ill-health all his life. With constitutional debility, increased by anxiety and perplexity during the long process of his inventions, and the subsequent care of defending them in court; yet, through constant temperance and watchfulness over his peculiar difficulties, his life was preserved to the great age of eighty-three years. He had in his character the utmost abhorrece for all parade and presumption, and, indeed, never failed to put all such imposters out of countenance by the manly plainness and honest intrepidity of his language and manner. In his temper and disposition he was not only kind and affectionate, but generous and considerate of the feelings of all around him, and gave the most liberal assistance[419] and encouragement to all young persons who proved any indication of talent, or applied to him for patronage or advice. He was twice married, and left his two sons, long associated with him in his business, to carry out some of his plans and discoveries of the great utility and power of steam. All men of learning and science were his cordial friends, and such was the influence of his mild character and perfect firmness and liberality, even to pretenders of his own accomplishments, that he lived to disarm even envy itself, and died the peaceful death of a Christian without, it is thought, a single enemy.

Memorial for James Watt

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