Watt, The Inventor and Discoverer

Watt, The Inventor and Discoverer

In the foregoing pages an effort has been made to follow and describe Watt's work in detail as it was performed, but we believe our readers will thank us for presenting the opinions of a few of the highest scientific and legal authorities upon what Watt really did. Lord Brougham has this to say of Watt:

One of the most astonishing circumstances in this truly great man was the versatility of his talents. His accomplishments were so various, the powers of his mind were so vast, and yet of such universal application, that it was hard to say whether we should most admire the extraordinary grasp of his understanding, or the accuracy of nice research with which he could bring it to bear upon the most minute objects of investigation. I forget of whom it was said, that his mind resembled the trunk of an elephant, which can pick up straws and tear up trees by the roots. Mr. Watt in some sort resembled the greatest and most celebrated of his own inventions; of which we are at a loss whether most to wonder at the power of grappling with the mightiest objects, or of handling the most minute; so that while nothing seems too large for its grasp, nothing seems too small for the delicacy of its touch; which can cleave rocks and pour forth rivers from the bowels of the earth, and with perfect exactness, though not with greater ease, fashion the head of a pin, or strike the impress of some curious die. Now those who knew Mr. Watt, had to contemplate a man whose genius could create such an engine, and indulge in the most abstruse speculations of philosophy, and could at once pass from the most sublime researches of geology and physical astronomy, the formation of our globe, and the structure of the universe, to the manufacture of a needle or a nail; who could discuss in the same conversation, and with equal accuracy, if not with the same consummate skill, the most forbidding details of art, and the elegances of classical literature; the most abstruse branches of science, and the niceties of verbal criticism.

There was one quality in Mr. Watt which most honorably distinguished him from too many inventors, and was worthy of all imitation; he was not only entirely free from jealousy, but he exercised a careful and scrupulous self-denial, and was anxious not to appear, even by accident, as appropriating to himself that which he thought belonged in part to others. I have heard him refuse the honor universally ascribed to him, of being inventor of the steam-engine, and call himself simply its improver; though, in my mind, to doubt his right to that honor would be as inaccurate as to question Sir Isaac Newton's claim to his greatest discoveries, because Descartes in mathematics, and Galileo in astronomy and mechanics, had preceded him; or to deny the merits of his illustrious successor, because galvanism was not his discovery, though before his time it had remained as useless to science as the instrument called a steam-engine was to the arts before Mr. Watt. The only jealousy I have known him betray was with respect to others, in the nice adjustment he was fond of giving to the claims of inventors. Justly prizing scientific discovery above all other possessions, he deemed the title to it so sacred, that you might hear him arguing by the hour to settle disputed rights; and if you ever perceived his temper ruffled, it was when one man's invention was claimed by, or given to, another; or when a clumsy adulation pressed upon himself that which he knew to be not his own.

Sir Humphrey Davy says:

I consider it as a duty incumbent on me to endeavor to set forth his peculiar and exalted merits, which live in the recollection of his contemporaries and will transmit his name with immortal glory to posterity. Those who consider James Watt only as a great practical mechanic form a very erroneous idea of his character; he was equally distinguished as a natural philosopher and a chemist, and his inventions demonstrate his profound knowledge of those sciences, and that peculiar characteristic of genius, the union of them for practical application. The steam engine before his time was a rude machine, the result of simple experiments on the compression of the atmosphere, and the condensation of steam. Mr. Watt's improvements were not produced by accidental circumstances or by a single ingenious thought; they were founded on delicate and refined experiments, connected with the discoveries of Dr. Black. He had to investigate the cause of the cold produced by evaporation, of the heat occasioned by the condensation of steam--to determine the source of the air appearing when water was acted upon by an exhausting power; the ratio of the volume of steam to its generating water, and the law by which the elasticity of steam increased with the temperature; labor, time, numerous and difficult experiments, were required for the ultimate result; and when his principle was obtained, the application of it to produce the movement of machinery demanded a new species of intellectual and experimental labor.

The Archimedes of the ancient world by his mechanical inventions arrested the course of the Romans, and stayed for a time the downfall of his country. How much more has our modern Archimedes done? He has permanently elevated the strength and wealth of his great empire: and, during the last long war, his inventions; and their application were amongst the great means which enabled Britain to display power and resources so infinitely above what might have been expected from the numerical strength of her population. Archimedes valued principally abstract science; James Watt, on the contrary, brought every principle to some practical use; and, as it were, made science descend from heaven to earth. The great inventions of the Syracusan died with him--those of our philosopher live, and their utility and importance are daily more felt; they are among the grand results which place civilized above savage man--which secure the triumph of intellect, and exalt genius and moral force over mere brutal strength, courage and numbers.

Sir James Mackintosh says:

It may be presumptuous in me to add anything in my own words to such just and exalted praise. Let me rather borrow the language in which the great father of modern philosophy, Lord Bacon himself, has spoken of inventors in the arts of life. In a beautiful, though not very generally read fragment of his, called the New Atlantis, a voyage to an imaginary island, he has imagined a university, or rather royal society, under the name of Solomon's House, or the College of the Six Days' Works; and among the various buildings appropriated to this institution, he describes a gallery destined to contain the statues of inventors. He does not disdain to place in it not only the inventor of one of the greatest instruments of science, but the discoverer of the use of the silkworm, and of other still more humble contrivances for the comfort of man. What place would Lord Bacon have assigned in such a gallery to the statue of Mr. Watt? Is it too much to say, that, considering the magnitude of the discoveries, the genius and science necessary to make them, and the benefits arising from them to the world, that statue must have been placed at the head of those of all inventors in all ages and nations. In another part of his writings the same great man illustrates the dignity of useful inventions by one of those happy allusions to the beautiful mythology of the ancients, which he often employs to illuminate as well as to decorate reason. "The dignity," says he, "of this end of endowment of man's life with new commodity appeareth, by the estimation that antiquity made of such as guided thereunto; for whereas founders of states, lawgivers, extirpators of tyrants, fathers of the people, were honored but with the titles of demigods, inventors were ever consecrated amongst the gods themselves."

The Earl of Aberdeen says:

It would ill become me to attempt to add to the eulogy which you have already heard on the distinguished individual whose genius and talents we have met this day to acknowledge. That eulogy has been pronounced by those whose praises are well calculated to confer honor, even upon him whose name does honor to his country. I feel in common with them, although I can but ill express that intense admiration which the bare recollection of those discoveries must excite, which have rendered us familiar with a power before nearly unknown, and which have taught us to wield, almost at will, perhaps the mightiest instrument ever entrusted to the hands of man. I feel, too, that in erecting a monument to his memory, placed, as it may be, among the memorials of kings, and heroes, and statesmen, and philosophers, that it will be then in its proper place; and most in its proper place, if in the midst of those who have been most distinguished by their usefulness to mankind, and by the spotless integrity of their lives.

Lord Jeffrey says:

This name fortunately needs no commemoration of ours; for he that bore it survived to see it crowned with undisputed and unenvied honors; and many generations will probably pass away, before it shall have gathered "all its fame." We have said that Mr. Watt was the great _improver_ of the steam engine; but, in truth, as to all that is admirable in its structure, or vast in its utility, he should rather be described as its _inventor_. It was by his inventions that its action was so regulated, as to make it capable of being applied to the finest and most delicate manufactures, and its power so increased, as to set weight and solidity at defiance. By his admirable contrivance, it has become a thing stupendous alike for its force and its flexibility, for the prodigious power which it can exert, and the ease, and precision, and ductility, with which it can be varied, distributed, and applied. The trunk of an elephant, that can pick up a pin or rend an oak, is as nothing to it. It can engrave a seal, and crush masses of obdurate metal before it; draw out, without breaking, a thread as fine as gossamer, and lift a ship of war like a bauble in the air. It can embroider muslin and forge anchors, cut steel into ribbons, and impel loaded vessels against the fury of the winds and waves.

It would be difficult to estimate the value of the benefits which these inventions have conferred upon this country. There is no branch of industry that has not been indebted to them; and, in all the most material, they have not only widened most magnificently the field of its exertions, but multiplied a thousand fold the amount of its productions. It is our improved steam engine that has fought the battles of Europe, and exalted and sustained, through the late tremendous contest, the political greatness of our land. It is the same great power which now enables us to pay the interest of our debt, and to maintain the arduous struggle in which we are still engaged (1819), with the skill and capital of countries less oppressed with taxation. But these are poor and narrow views of its importance. It has increased indefinitely the mass of human comforts and enjoyments, and rendered cheap and accessible, all over the world, the materials of wealth and prosperity. It has armed the feeble hand of man, in short, with a power to which no limits can be assigned; completed the dominion of mind over the most refractory qualities of matter; and laid a sure foundation for all those future miracles of mechanical power which are to aid and reward the labors of after generations. It is to the genius of one man, too, that all this is mainly owing; and certainly no man ever bestowed such a gift on his kind. The blessing is not only universal, but unbounded; and the fabled inventors of the plough and the loom, who were deified by the erring gratitude of their rude contemporaries, conferred less important benefits on mankind than the inventor of our present steam engine.

This will be the fame of Watt with future generations; and it is sufficient for his race and his country. But to those to whom he more immediately belonged, who lived in his society and enjoyed his conversation, it is not, perhaps, the character in which he will be most frequently recalled--most deeply lamented--or even most highly admired.

We shall end by quoting the greatest living authority, Lord Kelvin, now Lord Chancellor of Glasgow University, which Watt and he have done so much to render famous:

Precisely that single-acting, high-pressure, syringe-engine, made and experimented on by James Watt one hundred and forty years ago in his Glasgow College workshop, now in 1901, with the addition of a surface-condenser cooled by air to receive the waste steam, and a pump to return the water thence to the boiler, constitutes the common-road motor, which, in the opinion of many good judges, is the most successful of all the different motors which have been made and tried within the last few years. Without a condenser, Watt's high-pressure, single-acting engine of 1761, only needs the cylinder-cover with piston-rod passing steam-tight through it (as introduced by Watt himself in subsequent developments), and the valves proper for admitting steam on both sides of the piston and for working expansively, to make it the very engine, which, during the whole of the past century, has done practically all the steam work of the world, and is doing it still, except on the sea or lakes or rivers, where there is plenty of condensing water. Even the double and triple and quadruple expansion engines, by which the highest modern economy for power and steam engines has been obtained, are splendid mechanical developments of the principle of expansion, discovered and published by Watt, and used, though to a comparatively limited extent, in his own engines.

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Thus during the five years from 1761-66 Watt had worked out all the principles and invented all that was essential in the details for realizing them in the most perfect steam engines of the present day.

So passes Watt from view as the discoverer and inventor of the "most powerful instrument in the hands of man to alter the face of the physical world." He takes his place "at the head of all inventors of all ages and all nations."


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Contents Copyright James Watt 2009