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
-author of the award-winning book Battle for the Soul of Canada
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier
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