James Watt

The great scientist

James Watt

Lived 1736 – 1819.

A Little Background

James Watt worked as a scientific instrument maker, specializing in mathematical and nautical instruments.
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Early Life

James Watt came from a successful family. His grandfather taught mathematics, and his father was a carpenter, who built ships.

His mother was well-educated, and intelligent. She taught him to read, while his father taught him arithmetic and writing. He excelled at math, science and engineering at high school, but his language skills were less impressive.

As a boy, James Watt’s health was often poor, and much of his learning took place at home, where he could watch the fishing boats coming into the port of Greenock and the big sailing ships bringing in tobacco from the Americas. One day, thanks to his inventive mind, ships like these would be powered by engines.

At eighteen, following the death of his mother, and a ship sinking that placed a financial burden on his family, James gave up his plans to go to university. Instead, he trained in London as a scientific instrument maker, specializing in mathematical and nautical instruments. Within two months, his skills were higher than others who had been in training for two years. His exceptional hand skills had previously been commented on by workers in his father’s shipyard in Greenock.

After a year in London, he found work at Glasgow University, repairing instruments for the astronomy department.

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Where James Watt studied

Making Friends, Building Knowledge, and Developing New Skills at Glasgow University

Making Friends, Building Knowledge, and Developing New Skills at Glasgow University

Watt’s instrument work was so good that the university’s professors wanted to keep him working there permanently, so they invited him to set up a workshop in the university.

The professors soon realized the young man in the workshop had a brain equal to their own. They began calling on him to discuss their work. Students of mathematics and physics found that Watt had learned more about their subjects than they had.

He also overcame his earlier poor language skills, teaching himself German and Italian in order to read more scientific literature.

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James Watt at his workshop

At Glasgow University, James Watt became friends with Adam Smith, who founded the academic discipline of Economics and wrote The Wealth of Nations. He also became friends with the chemist Joseph Black, who discovered magnesium and, independently of Watt, invented the concept of latent heat.

In 1759, four years after his arrival in Glasgow, the 23 year-old James Watt became interested in steam engines.

This happened when another of his new friends at the university, Professor John Robinson discussed with Watt the possibility of a steam-driven car. Although their ideas for the car were impractical, a seed had been sown in Watt’s fertile mind.

Professor Robinson didn’t stand still either. He was the first person to publish an inverse-square law for electric forces, and he invented the siren.

James Watt's Greatest Inventions

• radically improved the steam engine, starting the industrial revolution.

• continued to produce a stream of new ideas and inventions, which eventually resulted in an engine that needed 80% less fuel than earlier engines.

• invented high pressure steam engines capable of even higher efficiencies, but the technology of the time was not capable of operating them safely.

• introduced the word horsepower to describe an engine’s power output. We now generally use watts to measure power, although engine power is still often rated in horsepower.

• was the first person to propose that water was made of hydrogen combined with oxygen.

• independently discovered the scientific concept of latent heat.

• invented the world’s first copying machine – similar in function to a photocopier – to make copies of correspondence, pages of books, and pictures.

Awards and Achievements

  • In 1784, he was elected as a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

  • In 1787, he was elected as a member of the Batavian Society for Experimental Philosophy in Rotterdam.

  • In 1806, he was conferred the honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Glasgow.

  • In 1960, the 11th General Conference on Weights and Measures incorporated ‘watt’ as the unit of power in International System of Units.

The Reason why James Watt inspired me

The reason why James Watt inspired me is because when I grow up I want to be able to invent something that we will use right now. At first I didn't know about James Watt, but after I read his biography I learned so much about him. As I said, when I grow up I want to invent something that we will use today.