Edhird's Blog

Restoring Health: body, mind and spirit

James Watt: Creative Genius


by the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird

James Watt was a creative genius who radically transformed the world from an agricultural society into an industrial one. Through Watt’s invention of the first practical engine, our modern world eventually moved from a 90% rural basis to a 90% urban basis. Everywhere in our world today, countless engines, many of them micro-computerized, power us.

Engines have played a big role in my family’s history. My maternal Grandpa Allen was a CPR Railway Engineer who was ‘bumped’ during the depression into shoveling coal into massive steam-driven engines. My paternal Grandpa Hird was a master mechanic and blacksmith who invented and raced one of the first jet-engine snowmobiles along the Edmonton River. In high school, I took numerous electronics courses in which I learned how to create an electronic mosquito-repellent engine and a voice-activated light switch. From Grade 3 to Grade 10, my fascination with electronic engines led me to want to become an electrical engineer, like my father. You can imagine the surprise of some of my family when their future engineer became a social worker and Anglican priest. My master-mechanic grandfather was not too impressed about Social Work, and proceeded to suggest that I should get a haircut and become a dentist!

James Watt, through the creation of the first practical engine, became the first modern-day engineer. The terms ‘engine’ and ‘engineer’ come from the Latin word ‘ingenium’, from which we get the words ‘ingenuity’ and ‘ingenious’. James Watt, by that definition, was a truly ingenious engineer who never let impossible obstacles hold him back. Born in 1736 at Greenock Scotland, James was a sickly child whose migraines and dreadful toothaches forced his parents to home-school him. Of the five children in James’ family, only James didn’t die at a young age. At age 11, James entered public school, and immediately became the daily target of vicious bullies, preying on his shyness and social ineptness. His teachers wrote him off as unintelligent.

Due to his aptitude at repairing his father’s navigation aids, James decided that he would become a maker of scientific instruments. James went first to Glasgow and then London in his search for proper training, but was blocked by the Guild of ‘The Worshipful Company of Clock-makers’ who had a stranglehold on apprenticing. Being a 20-year-old Scot, the Clockmakers saw James as too old to begin the required 7-year apprenticeship. As well, it was strictly forbidden for foreigners, which meant non-Londoners, to be trained as apprentices! Fortunately James found a renegade brassworker, John Morgan, who was willing to bend the rules and train him in just one year. James learned very quickly, but the overwork and near-starvation brought about a complete physical breakdown. Returning to Scotland, James regained his health quickly and attempted to set himself up as an instrument-maker in Glasgow. Because James was not a Glasgow native, the local Hammerman Guild did their best to drive him out. Fortunately for all of us who use engines, the Glasgow University gave him diplomatic immunity by declaring James the ‘Mathematical Instrument Maker to the University’.


Even though he had no ear for music and if anything, disliked it, James Watt the official Instrument Maker used his mathematics genius to create high-quality harps, flutes, bagpipes, and even organs. To him, one instrument was the same as another! When one of Watt’s organs was installed for the first time ever in a Scottish church, the angry parishioners stormed St. Andrew’s Glasgow and forcibly removed such an ungodly instrument from their Kirk!

James Watt then turned from the problems of church organs to water pumps. Given the unique challenge of improving the unreliable Newcomen water pump, James poured his heart and soul into this enterprise. The Newcomen pump greedily devoured coal and then would collapse from the incessant overheating and cooling. By James Watt’s addition of a separate vacuum steam condenser, he radically reduced by ¾’s the coal consumption and the wear-&-tear on the engine. This simple modification unleashed the industrial age in a way that changed the lives of most families on planet earth. One practical consequence of Watt’s engine was that mines could now be made more productive by draining the underground water at much deeper levels.

When James further modified his invention to become a rotary, double-acting parallel-motion engine, it not only produced twice the power, but it unleashed the historic cotton mills which fuelled the Western economy. During all this time, James struggled with the threat of financial bankruptcy and with the tragic death of his first wife. But he never let impossible circumstances hold him back. Instead he went on to create a prototype of our modern photo-copier, which was able to eliminate the need for endless hand-copying. James also scientifically determined the exact measurements of one horsepower, defined forevermore as one horse lifting 33,000 pounds the distance of one foot in one minute. Ironically the international measurement system has dropped the term ‘horsepower’ in favour of the James Watt-honouring term ‘watt’!

Through James Watt the Inventor, countless millions have experienced dynamic power for living. There is hardly an area of our workplaces and homes that has not been impacted by James’ ground-breaking inventions. May each of us take inspiration from James Watt’s faithfulness and creativity.

The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin

-author of the award-winning book Battle for the Soul of Canada

-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier/North Shore News

P. S. Click this Amazon link to view for free the first two chapters of our new novel Blue Sky.

“I’m afraid there’s been an accident…”

12bdf6ff-3021-4e73-bccd-bc919398d1a0-7068-0000031133e7b4d9Sandy Brown and her family have just moved to Spokane, Washington where her husband, Scott, is pastoring a new church. With a fresh start, Sandy is determined to devote more time to her four children. But, within weeks of settling in their new life, the Brown family is plunged into turmoil.

Sandy receives shocking news that her children aren’t safe, which brings back haunting memories of the trauma she experienced as a girl. Then, the unthinkable happens…

A brutal attack puts Sandy on the brink of losing everything she’s loved. Her faith in God and the family she cherishes are pushed to the ultimate limit.

Is healing possible when so many loved ones are hurt? Are miracles really possible through the power of prayer? Can life return to the way it was before?

Blue Sky reveals how a mother’s most basic instinct isn’t for survival… but for family.

If you’re a fan of Karen Kingsbury, then you’ll love Blue Sky. Get your copy today on paperback or  kindle.

-Click to check out our marriage book For Better For Worse: discovering the keys to a lasting relationship on Amazon. You can even read the first two chapters for free to see if the book speaks to you.

-The sequel book Restoring Health: body, mind and spirit is available online with Amazon.com in both paperback and ebook form.  Dr. JI Packer wrote the foreword, saying “I heartily commend what he has written.” The book focuses on strengthening a new generation of healthy leaders. Drawing on examples from Titus’ healthy leadership in the pirate island of Crete, it shows how we can embrace a holistically healthy life.

In Canada, Amazon.ca has the book available in paperback and ebook. It is also posted on Amazon UK (paperback and ebook), Amazon France (paperback and ebook), and Amazon Germany (paperback and ebook).

Restoring Health is also available online on Barnes and Noble in both paperback and Nook/ebook form.  Nook gives a sample of the book to read online.

Indigo also offers the paperback and the Kobo ebook version.  You can also obtain it through ITunes as an IBook.

-Click to purchase the Companion Bible Study by Jan Cox (for the Battle of the Soul of Canada) in both paperback and Kindle on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca 

Indigo also offers the paperback and the Kobo ebook version.  You can also obtain it through ITunes as an IBook.

To receive a signed copy within North America, just etransfer at ed_hird@telus.net, giving your address. Cheques are also acceptable.

-Click to purchase the Companion Bible Study by Jan Cox (for the Battle of the Soul of Canada) in both paperback and Kindle on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca 

To purchase any of our six books in paperback or ebook on Amazon, just click on this link.

Author: edhird

I was the Rector of St. Simon's Church North Vancouver, B.C for 31 years, from 1987 to 2018. Ordained in 1980, I have also served at St. Philip's Vancouver and St. Matthew's Abbotsford. My wife Janice and I have three sons James, Mark, and Andrew. I was Past President and Chaplain for Alpha Canada. While serving as the National Chair for Anglican Renewal Ministries of Canada, I was one of three co-signers of the Montreal Declaration of Anglican Essentials For the past 31 years, I have been privileged to write over 500 articles as a columnist on spiritual issues for local North Vancouver newspapers. In the last number of years, I have had the opportunity to speak at conferences and retreats in Honduras, Rwanda, Uganda, Washington State, BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, and Ontario. My book For Better, For Worse: discovering the keys to a lasting relationship, coauthored with Janice Hird, can be purchased at https://www.amazon.com/Better-Worse-Discovering-lasting-relationship/dp/0978202236/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1535555614&sr=8-1 My sequel Restoring Health: body, mind and spirit, with a foreword by Dr JI Packer, is online with Amazon.com in both paperback http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/097820221X/ref=redir_mdp_mobile and ebook form http://tiny.cc/tanhmx . In Canada, Amazon.ca has it available in paperback http://tiny.cc/dknhmx and ebook http://tiny.cc/wmhmmx . It is also posted on Amazon UK (paperback and ebook ), Amazon France (paperback and ebook), and Amazon Germany (paperback and ebook). Restoring Health is also available online on Barnes and Noble in both paperback and Nook/ebook form. Nook gives a sample of the book to read online: http://tiny.cc/vj3bmx . Indigo also offers the Kobo ebook version: http://tiny.cc/kreonx . You can also obtain it through ITunes as an IBook: http://tiny.cc/1ukiox The book 'Restoring Health: body, mind and spirit' focuses on strengthening a new generation of healthy leaders. Drawing on examples from Titus' healthy leadership in the pirate island of Crete, it shows how North Americans can embrace a holistically healthy life. In order to obtain a signed copy in North America of the prequel book 'Battle for the Soul of Canada', Blue Sky, or God's Firestarters, please send a $25 etransfer to ed_hird@telus.net . Cheques are also acceptable.

20 thoughts on “James Watt: Creative Genius

  1. Pingback: James Watt: Creative Genius « Edhird's Blog

  2. Watt did not invent the steam engine that we know today. He only worked with atmospheric pressure. It was Richard Trevithick, a Cornishman, 1771-1833, who invented the cylindrical boiler that enabled engines to be made smaller and cheaper. He built the world’s first successful road locomotive in 1801, the first road carriage in London, 1803 and the first railway locomotive in S Wales in 1804. All steam engines today are derived from the Trevithick design of high-pressure boiler.
    Regards, Phil


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  6. I’m surprised that no one has questioned my assertion that James Watt, lauded for the invention of the steam engine we all recognise and love, did nothing of the sort. I can only suppose that those who have examined Trevithick’s high-pressure steam engine invention have found the claim to be true, which it is! The inclusion of an illustration of a steam railway locomotive in the above article on Watt is very misleading. Watt was an exceedingly clever man but never claimed all that other people bestow on him. May I suggest that readers turn to ‘The Oblivion of Trevithick’ available on the web and elsewhere for a fully documented account of the rise of steam power.


  7. Here is some feedback from Philip Hosken who has written a book about Trevithick’s engine:
    “The retrospective use of the word ‘steam’ to describe Watt engines is incorrect. They were not operated by steam pressure but by atmospheric pressure at a maximum, depending upon efficiency, of 15 lbs.sq in. at sea level. They were known at the time as ‘fire’ engines.

    After an unsuccessful trial, Watt refused to use steam pressure and said that Trevithick should have been hanged for what he was doing. Watt’s boilers, and all those of his contemporaries and predecessors, were of the kettle or haystack design, usually made of copper with a flat bottom. The furnace was under this bottom. Any pressure in a boiler of this shape and material would be (and often was) catastrophic. When Watt retired in 1800 and he built his retirement home he included a clause in the deeds that it should never be approached by a steam carriage as that would have put him in danger of high-pressure steam.

    The Newcomen and Watt engines operated by condensing the steam to form a vacuum (in the Newcomen it was in the cylinder, in the Watt it was in a separate condenser) and atmospheric pressure acted on the piston to achieve work. Watt described his initial work as ‘Making improvements to Mr Newcomen’s fire engine’.

    Trevithick invented (and his father-in-law cast) the familiar cylindrical boiler which, as a pressure vessel, is seen today in steam engines, nuclear submarines, high flying aircraft and gully emptiers. Trevithick’s engine used steam under pressure, up to and over 100 lbs/sq in., to drive the piston. The steam was then exhausted to air to make the familiar ‘chuff’ or ‘puff’.

    Trevithick’s engines owe nothing to its Watt predecessors. No part of the Watt technology is found in a Trevithick engine except the coal and the water.

    In order to make his engines work from the beginning, Trevithick had to invent all the components associated with a high-pressure steam engine. These include the introduction of the furnace into the boiler, the provision of a high pressure water replenishment pump, an exhaust for the used steam (that became the ‘blast pipe’ and accounted for the ‘chuff’) and a system for preheating the boiler feed water. The boiler construction was difficult for its day.

    Although Trevithick’s work was appreciated at the time, he was not credited with it after Humphry Davy (later Sir) told Davies Giddy (later Gilbert) M.P. that he should take the credit for Trevithick’s work. Gilbert found this impractical and, in his lectures to the Houses of Parliament and the Royal Society on the development of the steam engine in Cornwall he failed to mention Trevithick, giving all the credit to Watt. By this time Watt was dead and people were travelling in trains pulled by high-pressure steam engines with cylindrical boilers.

    Trevithick, Davy and Gilbert were Cornishmen. Because of Cornwall’s rich mineral reserves it was the cradle of much industrial innovation.”


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