James Watt was born on 30 January 1736 (19 January 1736 in the Old Style calendar) in Greenock, Scotland, where he went to the local grammar school before training as a maker of surveying and navigational instruments.
In 1763 he repaired a model steam engine at the University of Glasgow but realised that something was wrong with the design.
Early steam engines – such as the Newcomen engine – were very inefficient.
Less than 1% of the energy in the coal they burned was converted into useful work, so they were only practical where coal was cheap. They were used mainly to pump water out of mines.
Watt found ways to improve efficiency to perhaps 3% – dreadful by modern standards, but a massive leap forward at the time.
He started a business to make the engine a commercial proposition. His first financial backer, John Roebuck, went bankrupt but Watt luckily befriended a businessman, Matthew Boulton, who owned a factory in Birmingham.
Like most factories of the time, Boulton’s was water-powered. He wanted to expand but his river wasn’t big enough, so he asked Watt to install a steam-engine.
It was a huge financial risk, but the engine was completed in 1777 and went on to power the factory for over 70 years earning the nickname ‘Old Bess’. The steam-powered factory had been born.
Other factory owners saw the potential of steam-power, so Boulton and Watt joined forces to build and sell steam-engines. But the new technology was large and complicated; acquiring a steam engine was a challenging and costly undertaking for most factory owners.
Watt’s first step was to estimate what size engine would suit a particular factory, then draw a detailed design. The important parts were made in Boulton & Watt’s factory, but the size of the engines required most of the construction to be done on site often using locally made basic parts. To make sure the new engine worked, Watt and his team would oversee all of this.
The engines were expensive, so buyers found it hard to find the cash for a single lump payment. Boulton & Watt therefore spread the cost over several years using regular charges linked to the amount of coal used by the engine.
In effect, the owner paid for the “usefulness” of the engine rather than for the engine itself.
This may seem a complicated way of doing business, but it is now common in the engineering world. Engineers usually specialize in consulting, design, construction, or operation. Contracts are drawn to spread costs and reduce financial risks.
An airline might lease engines for its aircraft rather than buying them outright; this arrangement is sometimes called “power-by-the-hour”.
Business complexity creates extra paperwork, but Watt found a solution. He experimented with special ink and paper to make a machine which could copy hand-written documents.
It was just like a modern office photocopier except that it didn’t use light; practical photography wouldn’t appear for another 40 years.
Again, other businesses liked the idea, so Watt started a copying machine company in 1780. The copiers were sold by several London stationers, along with the special ink and paper; does this sound familiar?
Why did Boulton finance Watt and take the risk of installing the first factory steam engine?
In 1760, Boulton inherited a buckle-making business which he extended to other metal goods including buttons and ornaments. By using water-powered machinery, his factory could make things faster and more cheaply than if they were hand-made.
During the late 18th century, buttons evolved from simple fasteners to being the main decorative element of fashionable clothing. Buttons became bigger and more ornate; some might be several centimetres across.
Wealthy people might buy hand-made gold or silver buttons set with gems, but Boulton had a cheaper alternative – machine-made steel buttons. These could be polished or plated to make them shiny, given colourful enamelled designs or fitted with porcelain inserts. Over time, buttons became Boulton’s most important product.
Boulton needed to consider keeping up with the demands of the mass market. Increasing production needed more power which – for Boulton – could only be provided by Watt’s steam engine.
Power and machinery increased the availability of low-cost goods. Fashion was no longer just for the wealthy; high-street fashion was on the way.
The fashion for fancy buttons soon moved on, but the wider desire for fashionable goods did not. Throughout the 19th century, demand for new manufactured products led to more factories and more industrial power; steam capacity doubled every 12 years from 1780 right into the 20th century. Supplying steam-engines became a big business.
Of course, steam is made by boiling water. In Watt’s day, heat was provided by coal which we now know causes climate change when burned. Steam power is still used today to generate much of the world’s electricity, but we use ultra-efficient steam turbines and – if we wish –low-carbon heat sources such as nuclear, geothermal or even concentrated sunlight.
Maybe Watt didn’t invent the steam engine, but his impact was still remarkable. He showed that steam could be used for industrial power, and that energy and mechanisation could provide cheaper goods for everyone. His collaboration with Boulton led mechanical engineering to become a major industry in the UK.
The irony is that fashionable clothes gave him those opportunities, eventually changing both the world of engineering and how we shop.
If you want to see more of Watt, then please browse the Science Museum Group Collection: Old Bess, the copying machine, the fancy buttons, the coins and other Boulton products are all there. Alternatively, just look at the contents of your office, your living-room, or inside your wardrobe – and think about how it all started.