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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 11 (February 1, 1936)

The Bi-Centenary of: James Watt — The Founder Of Mechanical Engineering. — (Specially written for the “New Zealand Railways Magazine.”)

page 11

The Bi-Centenary of: James Watt
The Founder Of Mechanical Engineering.
(Specially written for the “New Zealand Railways Magazine.”)

James Watt, the eminent Scot and great scientist, who so improved the imperfect steam engine of his day that he may be termed the Father of the Steam Age and the Founder of Mechanical Engineering, was born at Greenock on January 19th in the year 1736. The two-hundredth anniversary of his birth has therefore passed by a few weeks; but throughout the English-speaking world, and indeed through the whole world of Engineering the early months of this year will be marked by meetings held, addresses delivered and observances celebrated, to commemorate the anniversary.

In England the principal feature of the commemorations will consist of an exhibition of Watt relics and of models, drawings and sketches illustrating and referring to his work on the steam engine and his other engineering activities. This exhibition is being promoted by the celebrated Newcomen Society. It is being held at the South Kensington Museum of Natural Sciences and will extend over at least three months. Numerous speeches, addresses and explanatory talks will be delivered or will enliven the proceedings.

The New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers has sought the co-operation of the University, the Schools of Engineering, the Royal Society and of all other Engineering Societies to arrange that the bi-centenary shall be observed in New Zealand with some degree of fitness. The committee—the James Watt Bi-Centenary Committee— set up to organize the commemoration comprised Mr. F. W. Furkert (N.Z. Society of Civil Engineers) Chairman. Dr. E. Marsden (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research), Mr. P. R. Angus (Railways Dept.), Mr. N. J. M. McLeod (Public Works Department), Dr. W. P. Evans (University of New Zealand), Professor D. C. W. Florance (Victoria University College), Mr. S. H. Jenkinson (Canterbury College School of Engineering), Dr. C. Coleridge Farr (Canterbury College), Mr. J. Read (Wellington Technical College), Dr. P. Marshall (The Royal Society of New Zealand), Mr. W. Sommerville (New Zealand Institute of Power and Marine Engineers), Mr. J. G. Lancaster (Electric Supply Authority Engineers’ Association of New Zealand), Mr. A. F. Brasch (Wellington Model Engineering Society), Mr. W. L. Newnham (New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers, Wellington Branch), Mr. E. W. Swain (Technical Publications Limited), and Mr. D. K. Blair (Institute of Mechanical Engineers). The honorary secretary is Mr. H. L. Cole, and it is due to his enthusiasm and energy that the idea has taken practical shape.

The commemoration will be held in conjunction with the annual conference of the New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers, which will be held in Wellington this year in the third week of February in the rooms at Victoria College. An exhibition of working models, drawings and sketches illustrative of Watt's work and of mechanical engineering in general will be shown and a gold and a silver medal are being given as prizes to the model makers whose work most impresses. This exhibition will extend over the week. Three special “James Watt Commemoration Lectures” will also be delivered on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday (February 17th, 18th and 20th). The first, dealing with “The Pre-Steam Era,” will be delivered by Mr. F. W. Furkert, C.M.G., M.I.Mech.E., M.Inst.E.; the second on the “Life and Works of James Watt,” by Mr. S. H. Jenkinson of the Railway Department, and the third, treating of the “Major Consequences of the Industrial Revolution,” by Professor J. Shelley. Finally, a “James Watt Commemoration Dinner” will be held on Friday evening, February 21st.

It is fitting and appropriate that this attempt to commemorate the achievements of James Watt should be made in this Dominion, and the
James Watt (1736–1819.)

James Watt (1736–1819.)

only criticism that may be made is to regret that the proceedings will not be brought home to a larger proportion of our population. There is, perhaps unfortunately in this pictorial age, little or no historical credence for the commonly accepted belief that James Watt watched the steam pouring forth from the spout of the family kettle and meditatively invented the steam engine with all its complications then and there. There are, however, full proofs of the facts that James Watt was one of the foremost scientists and philosophers of his age, that he held association with scientists and engineers all over the world, that his inventions transformed the imperfect and wasteful single acting steam engine of Newcomen (it was really worked by atmospheric pressure abhorring the vacuum formed under the piston by the condensation of steam) into a beautiful, exact and very efficient machine, and that, most important of all, he so organized the workshop of the Soho Foundry at Birmingham as to render it capable of turning out reliable castings and exact and intricate machine work of a standard never before dreamed of or attempted.

The dependence of the modern world on the mechanical engineer and therefore on the machinery and general workshop organization that gives life and being to his designs and inventions is well understood. Locomotion on land, on sea, and in the air, all transference of sound by telegraph, telephone or wireless wave, all modern systems of lighting, heating and refrigeration—all these are the very breath of our modern life, and all these owe their being to the machine shop, and the mechanical engineer. page 12 What is not so well appreciated is the fact that the steam engine and many others of our modern inventions were dreamed of centuries before the Soho Foundry learnt to bore a cast iron cylinder and piston to such a degree of exactness that the thickness of “a half crown” would not pass between them! Until this great accuracy could be arrived at Watt found it difficult to give effect to his designs, and he was the first man to aim at this then almost fanciful degree of accuracy. His inventive genius was admittedly great, but it is doubtful if his work for the perfection of steam engine design was as important as is generally believed. His “great” invention of the separate condenser was, for instance, of no value whatever to the locomotive engineer, and the idea, even if we admit it was original with Watt, was conceived independently by others within a few years of its conception by Watt. Again, he did nothing whatever to advance the theory of the heat engine generally. Virtually all that has been laid down as a basis for this theory was done some years after Watt's death by an extraordinary genius who is only known to most as a member of one of the most execrated bodies of history—the Committee of Public Safety of the French Revolution! This was Carnot—it is probable that he never saw any more complicated machine than a guillotine in actual practice, but he laid down in simple language all the principles of the theory of the heat engine that millions of pages of mathematical formulae and calculation have only been able to cloud but never able to alter since. But that is another story —we await someone to tell it.

Here then is the fine thing that can be said about Watt, not that he was the first man to invent a steam engine but—and this is far finer—that he was the first man to be able to build one. When you think of all that this implies you will realize why the proudest title that can be given to James Watt is “Founder of Mechanical Engineering.”

Watt was born in Greenock on January 19th, 1736. At the age of 18 he decided that he would be a mathematical instrument maker and went to Glasgow to learn that trade. In those days Greenock was a long way from Glasgow, so Watt and his friends could be excused for not knowing that there was no mathematical instrument maker in Glasgow, and that the lad would have to go to London to get the experience he wanted. So he returned to Greenock to consult with his father before risking such a far and fateful adventure. However, the Scots are proverbially a brave and a thrifty race, and Watt senior was able and willing to provide the horse and necessary small fortune—this happened to be £2/2/—for the expedition, and James had the bravery and the hardy constitution for the 12 days journey. Such a display of determination predicated the due reward. One John Morgan allowed James to work in his shop and learn the business of making rules, compasses and finally “a brass sector with a French joint.” His practical education thus completed (he progressed in one year as far as other apprentices in four), he returned to Glasgow and was appointed “Mathematical Instrument Maker to the University.” Progress was slow but by the age of 28 he married and set up housekeeping “on a very humble scale”—no mention of kettles. Having to repair a model of a Newcomen engine, Watt became interested in steam power, and in May 1765 (age 29) he hit upon the idea of the separate condenser. Testing the idea by making small models took time, but by 1769 he was advanced sufficiently to take out a patent for his idea, the necessary payments being financed by John Roebuck. Things went poorly, Roebuck was in financial straits owing to his other activities, and Watt languished until in 1775 Matthew Boulton of Soho Foundry, Birmingham, took over Roebuck's share (two-thirds) of the patent, provided Watt with a job, a partnership, and a salary of £300 a year, had the patent extended for 25 years from that date, and undertook to pay all the cost of
Heathfield House (built by James Watt in 1790) in which Watt lived until his death in 1819.

Heathfield House (built by James Watt in 1790) in which Watt lived until his death in 1819.

future experiments and of exploiting the patent. In short, Boulton relieved Watt of any financial worry and allowed him to work in peace of mind building the engines, while Boulton himself took the man-size job of securing the finance for their operations. At one stage Boulton had spent over £40,000 (his own fortune, his wife's and all he could borrow) over and above any return from the engine business. By 1785, however, prosperity was in sight, and in 1795, that is 30 years after the idea was initially conceived, Watt was able to withdraw from active work with a considerable fortune.

The formation of this partnership between Boulton and Watt proved to be one of the epoch making events in the history of engineering, since it resulted in the foundation of the Soho Foundry and the organization of the first machine shop devoted to mass production business. This involved the training of labourers and tradesmen, the inculcation of modern factory ideas and methods, the discouragement of drunkenness, carelessness and happy-go-lucky absences, the invention or improvement of machines and processes and the location and organization of machinery in workable groups and sequence. In short it resulted in the inception of the mechanical engineering profession.

It is perhaps unfair to Matthew Boulton to give all the credit to Watt. The records show that Boulton appears to have taken a large share in the work, but as against this Boulton was the senior partner and the business head of the firm. Boulton page 13 was a man of boundless courage, energy and enthusiasm; he had a natural flair for finance, and developed a wide and detailed knowledge of mechanical engineering; above all, he was a man of sterling integrity and had an equable and lovable temperament. Watt was a true scientist, and showed a lightning capacity to understand the full implications of any suggestion or invention. The slightest suggestion of any improvement in mechanical processes was at once seized on by him and carried to practical fruition. He suffered, however, from incessantly poor health, he was easily discouraged by trifles and adversity, and had no capacity or patience for understanding or dealing with the many failings of the staff. It is certain that neither man alone could have achieved the great work. One can only say that it was a great day for England and a good day for the world when the partnership between the two men was formed.

The truth is that in celebrating the bi-centenary of the birth of James Watt we are really seizing on an event which can be used as a suitable opportunity for recalling the glory, extolling the work and learning the lessons that resulted from the great partnership. As the conception by Watt of the idea of the separate condenser is really the primary event in the long chain, it is natural perhaps to unduly stress the importance of Watt as compared with Boulton. In any case the celebration that is approaching has a particular meaning for this Dominion, since we are dependent, more perhaps than any other people, upon the work of the mechanical engineer as exemplified in the fields of locomotion and refrigeration.

I may, perhaps, fittingly close this brief tribute to the great man by
The lap engine at Boulton's Manufactory, Soho, Birmingham, 1788, showing Watt's parallel motion, valve gear and centrifugal governor, which remains virtually unchanged to-day. (Part of flooring removed to show separate condensor. Note also sun and planet driving gear invented by Watt to circumvent the use of the crank patented by Pickard in 1780.)

The lap engine at Boulton's Manufactory, Soho, Birmingham, 1788, showing Watt's parallel motion, valve gear and centrifugal governor, which remains virtually unchanged to-day. (Part of flooring removed to show separate condensor. Note also sun and planet driving gear invented by Watt to circumvent the use of the crank patented by Pickard in 1780.)

quoting the magnificent inscription upon Watt's statue in Westminster Abbey. (This was set up by public subscription initiated at a public meeting, presided over by the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, on 18th June, 1824). The inscription, written by Lord Brougham, is as follows:

Not To Perpetuate A Name Which Must Endure While The Peaceful Arts Flourish But To Show That Mankind Have Learned To Honour Those Who Best Deserve Their Gratitude The King His Ministers And Many Of The Nobles And Commoners Of The Realm Raised This Monument To

James Watt

Who Directing The Force Of An Original Genius Early Exercised In Philosophic Research To The Improvement Of The Steam Engine Enlarged The Resources Of His Country Increased The Power Of Man And Rose To An Eminent Place Among The Most Illustrious Followers Of Science And The Real Benefactors Of The World. Born At Greenock 1736 Died At Heathfield In Staffordshire 1819.

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