January 19 – Happy Birthday, James Watt

Posted on January 19, 2016

To a great extent, James Watt powered the Industrial Revolution!

This Scottish inventor was born on January 19, 1736 O.S. (“O.S.” means “Old Style”; this indicates that in Scotland in 1736, the calendar read “January 19” on the day that Watt was born. However, in places that had already replaced the Julian calendar with the Gregorian calendar, like Italy, that same day was called January 30! We sometimes put “N.S.” next to dates that have been updated to the Gregorian calendar, since that is the one we currently use; “N.S.” of course means “New Style.”)

We often say that James Watt invented the steam engine. But actually he Reinvented the steam engine. Like many (most?) inventors, Watt looked at the devices that already existed and created a better version. Watt's engine was much more powerful, much more efficient, and much more cost-effective than earlier steam engines.

It's called (not too surprisingly) the Watt steam engine.

How did Watt improve engines so much? He noticed that the engines wasted a lot of energy by having to repeatedly cool and then reheat in order to use and reuse the water. Watt's engine had a separate condenser that avoided this waste of energy.

Another huge improvement was that Watt was able to produce rotary motion (turning a shaft) rather than oscillating motion (going back and forth), which earlier engines produced. Rotary motion was way more useful for factories and transportation devices.

So...what's a Boulton and Watt steam engine?

Boulton and Watt steam engine” is just another name for the same thing. When Watt first perfected his newer, better steam engine, he had a hard time selling it to people. He was in the red, financially speaking. But then he got a business partner named Matthew Boulton, and the new firm became very successful. Both men became wealthy, and the words “steam engine” came to mean THEIR steam engine and no other.

Watt continued to develop new inventions, although none were as world-shaking as his steam engine. He developed the idea of horsepower, and the entire way we talk about power – with 60-watt bulbs and 650-watt microwaves – honors Watt with the unit of power being named after him!

  • Here is an animation of the steam engine at work.

  • Here is a video of massive, glistening, powerful steam engines working.

  • Here is a very short video about the importance of the invention.

Also on this date:

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