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James Watt (1736-1819)

Inventor and engineer

James Watt was born on the 19th of January 1736 in Scotland. His father was a ship owner and contractor, while his mother was an educated lady from a distinguished family.

He was a sickly child from childhood he suffered frequent headaches.

He was homeschooled by his mother, and later attended grammar school where he learned Latin and Greek, but was not very good at them.

When he was introduced to mathematics, he improved and took an active interest in learning numbers.

He studied the art of making mathematical instruments in England, and when he returned to Scotland, he established his own instrument making business at 21 years.

His reputation as an engineer grew and he was asked to give his expert opinion on the building and improvement of harbours in and around his hometown.

Even though some consider him to have invented the steam engine, he did not. He merely improved on a steam engine which was sent to his repair shop to make it work better.

Thomas Newcomen initially built the machine he improved. Due to financial problems, the licence that Watt owned was sold to a businessman who started producing Watt’s improved steam engine.

As it was many times better than the Newcomen machine, it soon became popular, especially used by mine owners to pump water out of their mines.

In 1781, he produced the rotary motion steam engine, which was a further improvement on the Watt steam engine that was used to draw water.

The rotary motion engine was efficient because it was able to power many different types of machines so could be used for many things apart from drawing water.

It became so popular that two years after he invented it more than 500 of his machines were used in factories and mines across England.

He also coined the term “horsepower” through calculations of how many horses’ work one of his steam engines could achieve. This term is still used sometimes today.

Watt was fascinated with chemistry and started experimenting with various chemicals. He produced chlorine, the powerful bleaching agent used in homes and factories for cleaning.

Furthermore, his experiments led him to find that using a mild form of chlorine on cloth had an amazing effect of whitening and brightening them.

He also invented an attachment to the telescope in 1767 that made it possible to measure distances.

Other inventions of his were a machine for copying sculpture, a letter copying press (perhaps the earliest version of the photocopier!), studied the nature of steam.

His improved steam engine design transformed the world, which was moving from an agricultural society to an industrial one (the Industrial Revolution).

At 83 years, when James Watt passed away, on the 25th of August 1819 he was a very wealthy man.

Today the power of a light bulb, measured by the unit of electrical power called “Watt” is named after him in honour of all his contributions that perhaps makes him one of the most influential engineers and inventors of his era.