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The History of James Watt

Friday November 27, 2015 by Guest Blogger


So here’s the thing right: Up to about 200 years ago, the making of pretty much everything was all done by hand!  Is that like, just totally mad or Watt?

But seriously, just one Great Briton changed that situation forever. And that one man was wee Jimmy Watt from Glasgae, wouldn’t you know it!


Now as a lad, Jim just loved tinkering with stuff. Here’s his loveable aunt’s take on that:

"James Watt, I never saw such an idle boy; take a book or employ yourself usefully; for the last hour you have not spoken a word, but taken off the lid of that kettle and put it on again, holding now a cup and now a silver spoon over the steam, watching how it rises from the spout, and catching the drops of water it turns into. Are you not ashamed to spend your time in this way?"

Nice. So anyway, Jim managed to spend a heap of time beavering away in his dad’s shop, teaching himself all about working with all sorts of materials.

And when he knew he was ready, he set off for the big city, the bright lights…

Well, Glasgow anyway. Lol.


Here Jim became an instrument maker working for a mechanic who was a sort of Jack-of-all-trades. Once he’d learnt what he could in Glasgow though, he decided that the ‘Big Smoke’ was the place he had to be. And so it was that, after a major London job hunt (uh, what’s new?), he got a year's apprenticeship, for which HE paid 100 quid and worked for free!

Huh! Looks to me like poor old Jimbo was stitched up good and proper:

"We work to nine o'clock every night, except Saturdays."

See what I mean? And to top it all (and help his dad out), he even got up early and did extras! Top man or sucker for punishment – you decide.



After finishing up in England, James fancied starting his own business and so he went back to Glasgow where, like his old gaffer, he also became a Jack-of-all-trades. He spent the next while making and repairing instruments for the university, making and selling glasses and fishing tackle, and although he was clueless about music, he even turned his hand to making organs! In the days before TV, Jim spent his time off reading and he self-studied chemistry, maths and mechanics.  Uh, as one does!

And so it was that our Jim first heard of the ‘steam engine’. Ladies, maybe you’d like to skip the next 2 paragraphs. This may be too much for your brains, which as we know, weren’t designed for this type of thing. (joking!!)

The idea grabbed him big time, and he started researching how other people had tried (unsuccessfully)  to make engines. Finding that the best books on steam and "fire engines," as they were then called, were in Italian and German, he studied these 2 languages. Again, as one does!

So he’d kinda been thinking about steam for 4 or 5 years, when he got a lucky break. He got to repair one of inventor Thomas Newcomen's poorly working efforts. Jim got the thing going first, and then tried to figure out just why it was so damned inefficient. Ladies…

Steam was used to make a vacuum in the cylinder. James found that to drive out the air and water, enough steam had to be let into the cylinder to fill it four times. Why was this? First, the cylinder was exposed to the air, which chilled it. The cold cylinder itself, before it was warm, changed considerable steam into water. Second, cold water was poured into the cylinder to condense the steam, and this made the cylinder cold again. James estimated that three quarters of all the steam used was thus wasted in heating and reheating the cylinder. Here was the trouble with Newcomen's engine. He saw that, to remedy this defect, a way must be found to keep the cylinder always as hot as the steam which entered it, and the vacuum must be made in the cylinder, without cooling it.

Uh, pretty obvious really, when you think about it. 


So basically, James spent a heap of time and money experimenting, but typically, for a long time, nothing worked.

"One Sunday afternoon early in 1765 I had gone to take a walk in the Green of Glasgow. I was thinking upon the engine and about how to save the heat in the cylinder, when the idea came into my mind that steam was an elastic body and would run into a vacuum. If connection was made between the cylinder and a tank from which the air had been pumped, the steam would pass into the empty tank and might there be condensed without cooling the cylinder. I then saw that I must get rid of the condensed steam and of the water used in condensing it. It occurred to me this could be done by using pumps."


UNTIL FINALLY...after eight ball-breaking months, Jim tested a working model. And…well, yeah. Let’s just say that:

“From the way it wheezed, snorted, and puffed fire and smoke, the engine was named Beelzebub.”

James wrote to his mates: 

"Of all things in life, there is nothing more foolish than inventing. I am resolved . . . if I can resist it, to invent no more."



So by this time Jim had already spent 10 years and thousands of pounds on his machine, and it was still only a dream. Talk about Jim’ll fix it. Thankfully help was at hand when in 1774, Mattie Boulton became Jim's partner, Old Beelzebub was resurrected and the rest as they say (well, barring a few mishaps) is history. Jimbob wrote to his dad:

"The fire engine I have invented is now going, and answers much better than any other that has yet been made, and I expect that the invention will be very beneficial to me."

Too right, mate.


Among the first orders for engines was one for a mine in Cornwall. Jim set it up and mine owners came from all over the place to see the monster and to everyone’s surprise it pumped water like they’d never seen water pumped before. Yay! Success! Jimbo wrote of the moment:

“The size, speed, and horrible noise of the engine give satisfaction . . . and the noise seems to give great ideas of its powers."

Orders for engines began to come in thick and fast. In the next 5 years almost all the mines in England and Scotland were supplied.

Jim then designed a factory engine and the first was built in 1782, for a corn mill. So far, so good, you’d think. Uh, no. The millers kicked off big time, despite Jim trying to reassure them:

“The argument that men are deprived of a livelihood would put a stop to the use of all machines whereby labor is saved. Carry out this argument, and we must do away with water mills themselves, and go back again to grinding corn by hand labor."


Jim and Mattie therefore decided to build a flour mill to show the lads what could be done, but hey-ho, they set the thing on fire and burned it to the ground.

As Kurt Vonnegut would say: "So it goes."

However, even though the mill was an insurance job, it served its purpose and again, orders for factory engines came in from France, Italy and America.

Jim still needed to confront loads of difficulties but the business, after a long wait and untold distress, it all finally began to pay.


So Jim finally (and definitely not quickly) got rich. And better than that…not having to constantly worry about where the next buck would come from, his health improved. He built a beautiful house in the country at Hearthfield and England’s greatest men (and loads of his mates) came to visit him there. And awesomely, his inventing room is kept just as it was in 1819.

Here’s what it says on Jim’s monument in Westminster Abbey: 



If I've inspired you to find out more about the great James Watt then Prestige Apartments has serviced apartments and vacation rentals on offer in some of his old haunts, including London, Birmingham and Glasgow. Indeed a London serviced apartment could be your ideal base to find out more about the great man at the world famous Science Museum

Just get in touch with our friendly sales team and they’ll help you to choose your perfect serviced apartment for your stay in the UK. 

Tel: 020 7704 6514 or email: sales@prestigeapartments.co.uk


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