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History of engineering: Wonder maker

Andrew Robinson delves into a study inspired by James Watt's fascinating workshop.

James Watt: Making the World Anew

Reaktion: 2014. 9781780233758 | ISBN: 978-1-7802-3375-8

In 1924, London's Science Museum acquired the entire workshop of engineer James Watt, left almost untouched in the attic of his house in Birmingham, UK, since his death more than a century before. The museum put a recreation of the workshop on permanent display in 2011. Among the 8,434 items left by the Scotsman, best known for his innovative steam engine, is an enormous range of tools, including the earliest known circular saws. There are also mathematical instruments, optical experiments, minerals and chemicals, pottery and ceramics made by Watt, busts of famous figures waiting to be copied in plaster of Paris, and engine-related objects — such as a box containing the fragments of his attempts to make an engine that used pure rotary motion.

James Eckford Lauder's James Watt with the Newcomen Engine (1855), painted after the late engineer had become a celebrated figure. Credit: Christie's Images/Corbis

This workshop inspired Ben Russell, the Science Museum's curator of mechanical engineering, to write his engaging James Watt: Making the World Anew. He explains that the volume of material, “crossing the boundaries between philosophy and craft, makes it hard to categorize the contents against any one of the labels which have been applied to Watt over time: philosopher or craftsman primarily, but engineer and chemist, as well.” The diversity of Watt's interests and activities was astonishing, even when compared with the achievements of his Enlightenment contemporaries. Chemist, inventor and Royal Society president Humphry Davy, for instance, called him a “modern Archimedes” whose inventions had made industrialized Britain remarkably powerful for such a small nation.

Watt's first steam engine, which began operating in 1776, was successful because it had three times the coal-combustion efficiency of the existing engine designed by Thomas Newcomen, introduced in 1712. The steam cylinder in Newcomen's 'atmospheric' engine had to be sprayed with cold water at each cycle to condense the steam, creating a partial vacuum that allowed atmospheric pressure to push the piston down. In 1765, in Glasgow, Watt had a “major leap of imagination”, as Russell puts it: the idea of building a separate condenser, so that cylinder and piston did not lose heat. By patenting the principles of the condenser and not the means of applying them, Watt and his business partner Matthew Boulton became wealthy, although not without a long legal battle against their rivals in the 1790s. Their engine — its power defined in horsepower, a unit invented by Watt and today most commonly converted as 746 watts — became an industry standard by 1800, for pumping water from mines and driving machinery in mills and factories.

“Watt was 'a new kind of industrial hero' whose stature was comparable to Isaac Newton's as a physicist.”

From 1804, Watt moved from steam to sculpture, creating plaster of Paris copies of busts, then much in demand among the wealthy. His 'sculpture machine' was a three-dimensional pantograph, powered by a treadle and worked by means of linked and geared arms, one ending in a probe and one in a high-speed, rotating cutting tool. As the probe traced the surface of the original bust, the tool duplicated its motion and cut a plaster block. Today, about 400 of Watt's sculptures are in storage at the Science Museum, including casts, busts, depictions of contemporaries including the chemist Joseph Black, and copies of Boulton's 1809 death mask. After his own death in 1819, Watt became the first engineer to be commemorated in Westminster Abbey. For the Victorians, Russell shows, Watt was “a new kind of industrial hero” whose stature was comparable to Isaac Newton's as a physicist.

As Russell admits, there is no shortage of recently published studies of Watt, such as Richard Hills's three-volume biography James Watt (Landmark, 2002–06) and James Watt, Chemist by David Miller (Pickering & Chatto, 2009). But where Russell focuses on Watt as a man able “not just to think but to do: to use tools, techniques and materials, to create tangible things across a range of activities”, most studies tend to emphasize his capacity as a thinker. Perhaps that tendency is inevitable. Scientists and science historians generally revere original theories with unforeseeable consequences more than practical inventions with immediate applications — Newton and Albert Einstein more than Christopher Wren, Watt and Thomas Edison. For all the wonderful creativity on display in his workshop, Watt was essentially earthbound. Yet his life and work are decidedly relevant to the debate about how scientific discoveries are best turned into marketable inventions. Watt's way of working — with a business partner and a patentable purpose, whether an efficient coal-driven means of pumping flood water out of mineshafts or the mass production of pottery — could hold lessons for any university or government keen to promote technology transfer.

Watt was born in Scotland, trained as an instrument maker in England, made his breakthrough with the steam engine in Scotland, and began manufacturing it in England, where he settled. Next month, there will be a referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom. Whatever the outcome, Watt's remarkable life is a definite benefit arising from the close economic, intellectual and cultural union of Scotland and England.

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Correspondence to Andrew Robinson.

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Robinson, A. History of engineering: Wonder maker. Nature 512, 134–135 (2014).

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