Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1296:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1296.

Today, Andrew Carnegie looks at James Watt. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Andrew Carnegie was in his 60s when a publisher asked him to write the biography of James Watt. Of course Carnegie said "No." He was, after all, no historian. He was an industrialist and one of the wealthiest people on earth. On the face of it, the request made little sense. But, wrote Carnegie, "the idea haunted me ... Why shouldn't I write the life of the maker of the steam engine, out of which I had made a fortune?"

Carnegie had first worked for a railroad. Then he bought a small oil field. After the Civil War he concentrated on producing steel. It was the right choice. Oil would make people rich later on. But, for now, America would be built on steam, iron, and steel. It was Carnegie who formed what later became U.S. Steel.

By the time internal-combustion engines began remolding America, Carnegie had switched careers yet again. When he took on Watt's biography, he'd quit amassing wealth and was now committed to doing the maximum possible good in giving his money away. Carnegie was an old-school capitalist whose objective was social improvement. The 19th century had seen that breed of idealists replaced by the so-called robber-barons -- people like Astor, McCormick, and Hill. Carnegie took his cues from the first of his kind. The authors of the 18th-century Industrial Revolution had formed into seminars and cell-groups where they'd talked about shaping technological change in the best interests of the people. People like Boulton, Watt, and Wedgwood knew what they were doing to the world, and they were gravely concerned with doing it right.

Small wonder Carnegie looked with such affection on James Watt, who, like him, was born in Scotland and devoted a life to reshaping the world. Carnegie finished his biography of Watt in 1905. In that, he followed the footsteps of the French scientist François Arago. Arago wrote the first major Watt biography specifically to tell the French that technology was a force for social reform.

Two features mark Carnegie's work. One is 19th-century sentiment. No deconstruction here -- no dirty linen or skeletons in the closet. He praises Watt's honesty, clarity, and brilliance without stint. And, at length, he writes something patently autobiographical: "Watt," he says, "gracefully glided into old age. This is the great test of success in life."

But Carnegie's book had a more important feature than sentiment. It had accuracy. In it I find things told just the way modern historians sorted them out seventy years later. For all its Victorian sentiment, this book gives me hope -- hope for technology and hope for capitalism (which has so often failed us). It also redeems sentiment, which rings false so often we could all be cynics. But nothing rings false here. Andrew Carnegie's own life validated his use of Watt -- as the model for a life lived well.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Carnegie, A., James Watt, New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1905. Arago, M., Life of James Watt. 2nd ed., Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1839. (M. stands for Monsieur. Arago's initials were D. F. J. This volume also includes Arago's rejoinder to criticism of the book, "On Machinery Considered ... ," Lord Jeffrey's Elogium of James Watt from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Lord Brougham's "Historical Account of the Composition of Water.")

For more on Watt's cell group see Episode 168, and for more on Carnegie see Episode177.

Image from Carnegie's autobiography,
courtesy of Special Collections, UH Library

Andrew Carnegie

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.

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