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Issue 92 - The father of steam

Scotland Magazine Issue 92
April 2017


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The father of steam

John Hannavy indulges his passion for steam (again)

On the shore of Loch Lomond, at Balloch, stands a unique survival of the great days of steam: the Balloch Steam Winch. Restored back to its former glory just over a decade ago, it was used to drag the paddle-steamer PS Maid of the Loch — another great survivor — out of the water for her periodic hull inspections.

The twin cylinder, single-expansion steam engine that drives the winch was built by John Bennie of Glasgow in 1902. In operation, steam is fed alternatively into each cylinder, and then evacuated into the atmosphere — just like the ‘Puffers’ that were so common around Scotland’s west coast. In order for a 33-horsepower steam engine to haul a large ship out of the water, some impressive gearing is employed to create a lot of torque. For a single rotation of the cable drum, the engine has to turn the main drive wheel more than 100 times. That winch engine owes its very existence to the pioneering work, more than two centuries earlier, of one of the greatest names in Scottish engineering — James Watt.
Just about every Scottish schoolboy (I was one, more than half a century ago) learned the story of how James Watt (1736–1819) invented the steam engine, after watching the moving lid of a boiling kettle. But it seems that we were all lied to! Can you believe that — teachers telling porkies? Shocking, isn’t it?

The cause of my horror was finding out (around a decade later when my passion for anything steam-powered was first awakened) that, contrary to what my science master had told the class, Watt didn’t invent the steam engine at all. That accolade should go to Dartmouth’s Thomas Newcomen (1664–1729) and Thomas Savery (whose first ‘atmospheric engine’ was demonstrated in 1712) or, even earlier than him, the French scientist Denis Papin (1647–1712) whose 1679 ‘steam digester’ was a forerunner of the domestic pressure cooker.

Newcomen and Savory’s engines used a spray of cold water to quickly condense the steam inside the engine cylinder, thus creating a partial vacuum. Watt discovered that, instead of constantly heating and cooling the cylinder, if the condensing took place in a separate vessel the cylinder remained hot and thus the engine became much more efficient. This discovery eventually led him to the use of high-pressure steam, which became a ubiquitous feature of steam locomotives.

James Watt was born in Greenock and his name lives on it the town by virtue of the huge James Watt Dock. The local college once bore his name — having been set up in 1908 as the Watt Memorial Engineering and Navigation School — before becoming James Watt College. However, today it is known by the more prosaic title of West Scotland College.

In his 1905 biography, Andrew Carnegie, the Dunfermline-born philanthropist who partly funded the school, had said of Watt that he was ‘the creator of the most potent instrument of mechanical force known to man’, yet there were so many set-backs in his early professional life that it is all the more remarkable that he achieved greatness. As Watt didn’t invent the steam engine, the story about him watching a boiling kettle is probably apocryphal, but Carnegie was having none of that. Indeed, he wrote:

‘Sitting one evening with his aunt, Mrs. Muirhead, at the teatable, she said: “James Watt, I never saw such an idle boy; take a book or employ yourself usefully; for the last hour you have not spoken one word, but taken off the lid of that kettle and put it on again, holding now a cup and now a silver spoon over the steam, watching how it rises from the spout, and catching and connecting the drops of hot water it falls into. Are you not ashamed of spending your time in this way?” To what extent the precocious boy ruminated upon the phenomenon must be left to conjecture. Enough that the story has a solid foundation upon which we can build. This more than justifies us in classing it with ‘Newton and the Apple’, ‘Bruce and the Spider’, ‘Tell and the Apple’, ‘Galvani and the Frog’, ‘Volta and the Damp Cloth’,‘Washington and His Little Hatchet’, a string of gems, amongst the most precious of our legendary possessions. Let no rude iconoclast attempt to undermine one of them. Even if they never occurred, it matters little. They should have occurred, for they are too good to lose.’

Watt’s father, James Watt senior, was a shipwright and ship’s chandler in Greenock, and James’s childhood was spent in something approaching affluence. But more important than just being well off, he also came from a learned family. His grandfather, Thomas, had established a school of mathematics in Greenock and was well respected as a teacher, despite having briefly fallen foul of the local Kirk who declared him a ‘disorderly school-master officiating contrary to the law’. Thankfully, they later changed their minds and described him as ‘blameless in life and conversation’ and made him a Kirk Elder.

The younger James Watt’s childhood seems to have been spent quietly. He was not interested in any sport, except fishing, and reportedly spent much time by the shores of the Clyde — which in those days was a very busy river with great sailing ships making their way up and downstream on their way to or from the great ports of the world.

Like his father, James Watt junior was a man of many talents. He became an accomplished instrument-maker and, but for a quirk of fate, he might have spent his life making scientific instruments. However, his attempts to establish himself as an instrument-maker professionally fell foul of a Glasgow guild known as the Guild of Hammermen, who refused to allow him to practice his skills because he had not undergone a formal apprenticeship. But to whom might he have been apprenticed? There were no qualified ‘masters’ in Scotland at the time and James had learned his skills in London.

He eventually got a job as a technician at Glasgow University and, when asked to repair a Newcomen steam engine, its shortcomings and inefficiency became immediately clear to him. His ‘improvements’ would change the world. As a result of his endeavour, James Watt became a towering figure in Scotland’s industrial history and, undoubtedly, he was one of those rare figures whose innovations changed the world forever.
Indeed, James Watt sowed the seeds that led to the development of many of the machines that powered the next 200 years. Without his original and ground-breaking work, arguably, the mechanisation of industrial production would have progressed at a much slower pace. Today, the legacy of steam power can still be enjoyed all over Scotland.

Three of his many innovations helped the steam engine evolve from a simple pumping engine into the wide range of high-pressure engines that powered mills, ships, railway locomotives, and a host of other mechanical devices.

The first was the steam condenser, which hugely increased the efficiency of Newcomen’s engine by harnessing what had previously been ‘waste’ steam. The Watt steam engine more than trebled the efficiency and power of Newcomen’s engine, reducing fuel costs by three-quarters in the process.

Secondly, Watt developed a simple parallel motion system that converted the simple ‘up and down’ motion of the steam engine into a rotational drive, paving the way for the mighty steam engines that drove the Victorian world.

Third on the list of his many important achievements would be the development of the ‘centrifugal governor’, which controlled the speed of the engine and was later used to control many mechanical devices such as the rotational speed of millstones — a least in some designs of windmills — and the accuracy of clocks.

The most important of his ideas were put into practice after he went into partnership, in 1775, with Birmingham entrepreneur Matthew Boulton. The company of Boulton & Watt becoming world renowned as the manufacturer of powerful and reliable steam engines — so reliable, in fact, that several are still working today. In Crofton Pumping Station, in Wiltshire, an 1812 Boulton & Watt beam engine (the oldest in the world still in situ) can be seen regularly in steam during summer weekends.

To see the oldest surviving example of a James Watt-designed rotative beam engine in the world, Australian readers of Scotland Magazine have a distinct advantage over us Brits. In Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, the Whitbread Engine, built by Boulton & Watt in 1875 for the London brewery of the same name, has been restored to full working order. By that time, of course, Boulton and Watt themselves were long gone, as were their sons. Some time around then, the business was re-named James Watt & Company in a fitting memorial to the man on whose genius its success had been built.

Andrew Carnegie had no doubt about Watt’s importance: ‘Nothing man has discovered or imagined is to be named with the steam engine. It has no fellow. Franklin capturing the lightning, Morse annihilating space with the telegraph, Bell transmitting speech through the air by the telephone, are not less mysterious — being more ethereal, perhaps in one sense they are even more so — still, the labour of the world performed by heating cold water places Watt and his steam engine in a class apart by itself.’

James Watt’s name is rightly remembered the world over. In 1882 the unit of power was named in his honour, so every time we buy a new light bulb, switch on an electric fire, or define the power of a machine, we talk of ‘watts’, ‘kilowatts’ and ‘megawatts’. To James Watt also goes the credit for the simple idea of expressing a machine’s work capacity as ‘horsepower’ — being the number of horses it would take to do the same amount of work as an engine.

Birmingham still has a James Watt College and an imposing Matthew Boulton Campus, recalling Boulton and Watt’s fruitful business partnership and their huge impact on engineering in the city. Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University has a James Watt Institute, and Glasgow University has its James Watt Engineering Building.

Towards the end of his life and returning for a visit to his native Greenock, James was invited by Henry Bell to take a trip on the paddle steamer Comet that, of course, was powered by a steam engine descended directly from Watt’s invention.