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James Watt

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James Watt was an engineer, inventor, and chemist of Scottish origin born in 1736, credited with great contributions to the industrial revolution through his invention of the steamship. He was born in Greenock, Scotland, the UK in a successful family of mathematicians and carpenters who built ships. Watt’s mother Agnes Muirhead was learned woman of substance who taught him how to read while his father enlightened him in arithmetic. Watt was born in Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland and, due to his poor health during childhood, received most of his early education at home from his mother. He later attended Greenock Grammar School where he learned mathematics and languages. Throughout his early years of education, Watt was a constant at his father’s workshops where he familiarized himself with tools and models and developed a keen interest in building equipment. Watt’s genius through his engineering skills and mathematical abilities became ever so pronounced.

At age eighteen, with the death of his mother and the sinking of a ship that caused his family great financial setbacks, Watt annulled his plans to enroll at the university. In 1754, he went to Glasgow, Scotland on the lookout of earning a living in instrument making and became acquainted with Robert Dick through a common contact. Although Robert Dick was impressed with Watt’s basic skills, he insisted that Watt acquire formal training in London. Thereon Watt chose to move to London to study instrument making under John Morgan, an instrument maker, specializing in mathematical and scientific instruments.  Watt displayed exceptional talent and aptitude as an apprentice and returned to Glasgow in a year’s time and acquired work at Glasgow University where he repaired instruments for the astronomy department. Word of Watt’s genius spread when the arrival of astronomical instruments from Jamaica beckoned expert attention. Watt was assigned the responsibility to manage and restore these instruments at the university’s Macfarlane Observatory.  The university’s authorities, pleased with his work, invited him to set up a workshop on the university’s premises in 1757. At the workshop, Watt made and sold instruments such as quadrants, compasses, and scales.

Since Watt met with a lot of resistance in the industry of scientific instrument making, he decided to diversify into making musical instruments which was an improvement over pre-existing versions of the instruments. Soon his creations gathered more attention and business gained momentum, which led to his partnership with John Craig, an architect, and businessman to establish another shop in Glasgow that housed musical instruments and toys.

It was also in the 1750s that Watt met Joseph Black, who would later establish his renown as physicist and chemist and the two became friends. Watt would supplant Black’s class with model engines for studying properties of heat. It was during one such instance while Watt was fixing a steam engine, the Newcomen engine in 1764 for Professor John Anderson’s physics class demonstrations that he decided to remodel the engine to improve its efficiency. Watt realized that the existing design entailed heating and cooling the engine which consumed a lot of energy and made the engine slow. Watt rounded up a solution that would use a separate chamber to condense steam without cooling the rest of the engine. Watt experimented for over two years until he perfected his engine design. Watt patented his steam engine condensing chamber in 1769 through insistence and support from John Roebuck, Physician, chemist, and inventor and the founder of the Carron Works. When Roebuck’s company went bankrupt in 1772, English manufacturer and engineer Matthew Boulton, the manufacturer of the Soho Works in Birmingham, took over a share in Watt’s patent. Together they established Boulton & Watt, a successful company that spearheaded designing and leasing new steam engines for a multitude of industries. 1785 marked the year when Watt and Boulton elected fellows of the Royal Society of London.

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