Today, a story of darkness before the dawn. 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.
1764 was a good year for
28-year-old James Watt. Five years later, his life
began a long slide into grief and frustration.
Watt was an instrument-maker at the University of
Glasgow. The year before, he'd been asked to fix
the Newcomen steam engine model that demonstrated
steam power to students in the natural philosophy
class. It hardly moved under its own power. Could
Watt identify the problem and eliminate it?
Watt struggled with the waste of steam each time it
was let into the cylinder. Half of it condensed on
the walls, cooled by the condensation process
that'd occurred in the previous stroke.
In 1764 Watt solved the steam engine problem. He
saw that if he separated condensation from the
cylinder, the cylinder would stay hot and the
condenser cold. No more wasted steam!
He also married his cousin, Margaret Miller, that
summer. It was a happy marriage. Everything was
coming up roses for Watt.
But now he had to make a working model of his new
engine, and that was another matter. Watt was soon
going broke, so he sold two thirds of his patent to
an inventor and speculator named John Roebuck.
Roebuck's iron works was in trouble because its
coal mines were flooding. He hoped to use Watt's
engine to pump them dry.
The engine still had too many bugs to do the job.
Then Roebuck made some bad business gambles. By
1769 he, too, faced bankruptcy. He had to sell off
his holdings to get out of debt, and no one would
put up a farthing for his share of Watt's patent.
Matthew Boulton, an industrialist from Birmingham,
finally saw what others didn't. He gave Roebuck
£1200 for his share of the patent. He bailed
them both out, and Watt kept struggling.
For the next four years Watt wrestled with his
engine. His wife tried to buoy him. "If it will not
do, something else will," she wrote. "Never
despair." Meanwhile, two of their children died as
infants. Finally, as if to make trouble complete,
Margaret died in 1773. The last threads of Watt's
life came undone. Watt tried to cope with it all.
Finally he wrote, "I know grief has its period; but
I have much to suffer ... "
Yet there really is a season for everything -- "a
time to mourn and a time to dance." By 1776 the
engine was running. Watt moved to Birmingham to
work with Boulton. And he remarried, happily, once
more. By the time he died 43 years later, he'd
changed history and was the most honored engineer
who had ever lived.
That year, 1776, Boulton could cheerfully tell
Johnson's biographer, Boswell, "I sell here, Sir,
what all the world desires to have -- POWER." Watt
had emerged from his ashes to reshape the world. It
had finally become his time to dance.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Muirhead, J.P., The Life of James Watt, with
Selections from His Correspondence. 2nd ed.,
revised. London: John Murray, 1859. (A rare book
provided by the Rice University Library)
Arago, M., Life of James Watt. 2nd ed.
Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1839. (M. must
stand for "Monsieur." Arago's initials were D.F.J.
This volume also includes Arago's rejoinder, "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.")
Arago, F., Eloge Historique de James Watt (Tr. from
the French, with additional notes and an appendix
by James Patrick Muirhead). London: J. Murray,
The latter two rare books were provided by Special
Collections, UH Library. J.P. Muirhead, whose name
appears in two of the sources above, was James
Watt's first cousin twice removed. He and
François Arago were the primary biographers
of James Watt.
To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the Heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that
which is planted;
A time to kill, and time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to
gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace;
What profit hath he that worketh
in that wherein he laboureth?
I have seen the travail,
which God hath given to the sons of men to be
exercised in it.
He hath made every thing beautiful in his time:
19th-century engraving; source
Photo by John Lienhard
The University of Glasgow
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
From the 1832 Edinburgh
(Click on the image for an enlargement)
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