Five Professional Lessons from Watt’s Inventive Career

THE BOY SPENT HIS DAYS watching ships arriving back to the port. One day, thanks to his inventive genius, ships like these would be powered by engines rather than sails. Belonging to an accomplished Scottish family, young James Watt excelled at mathematics, science, and engineering at high school, but his language skills were rather less impressive.

At eighteen, following the death of his mother, and a ship sinking that placed a heavy financial burden on his family, James gave up his plans to join university in Glasgow. Instead, he chose to train, first in Glasgow and later in London, as a scientific instrument maker. At both places, odds seemed against him. 

After spending two weeks in London and visiting various shops for being employed as an apprentice, James realized that the rules of the trade were a significant obstacle in his way: the only employment was for fully-trained instrument makers or trainees serving seven years apprenticeships; clearly, he did not fall into any of the two categories. 

Watt had his first stroke of luck as he met John Morgan—an instrument maker in the heart of London—who was not so strict with rules. As Morgan assessed Watt’s extraordinary capabilities with mechanical work, he agreed to shorten the apprenticeship period to one year rather than seven on the conditions of a meager stipend. Likewise, Watt did not disappoint Morgan. 

Within two months, James Watt was able to surpass another apprentice who had been there for three years. Nonetheless, it was no easy task; covering seven years of practice into one year required him to work for ten hours a day in a cold workshop. With the little money he received, he had to maintain long hours on little food. Eventually he finished his apprenticeship year successfully and returned to Glasgow as a trained instrument maker in 1756. 

Lesson One: Be ready to work harder and make sacrifices especially when the odds are against you. Don’t expect lucrative rewards in the beginning of your career. When John Morgan offered a tough apprenticeship with little pay to James Watt, the latter took it as a rare opportunity to develop his skills, worked harder, and made personal sacrifices. But as you will find out later in this account, these sacrifices did not go in vain. 

Upon his return to Glasgow, James Watt succeeded in setting up a workshop at the University of Glasgow and started making mathematical instruments for the university labs. As the Mathematical Instrument Maker for the university, he was often consulted for repairing lab equipment. One such repair was about to change the future of mankind for good.

One fine morning in 1763, Professor John Anderson, who used to demonstrate the working model of the Newcomen steam engine in his physics lab, needed the model repaired. James Watt was called for repairing the engine. During the repair, he was astonished to learn how little work the engine was capable of. Realizing that there was an ample room for improving the efficiency of the engine; he decided to take it as a challenge.

Though Newcomen engines were in use for more than 50 years in Britain, no one had found a way to improve them. These engines worked on a simple principle: a jet of steam was used to drive a piston inside a cylinder in one direction; the cylinder was subsequently cooled down with water to bring the piston back to its initial position. The cycle could then be repeated, thereby converting heat into mechanical work. 

Taking into account the low efficiency of the Newcomen steam engine, Watt spent the next two years conducting experiments with water and steam in metal vessels. Eventually, he realized that cooling with water after steam had done its work was the root cause of energy loss and lower output. He redesigned the engine skipping the cooling water injection & inclusion of a condenser intended to collect the condensed steam and make it available for the next cycle. 

By the end of 1765, a twenty nine years old James Watt had built his first small-scale steam engine featuring a separate condensing chamber and a steam jacket. Winning through the challenge, he had brought the required improvements in the efficiency of the Newcomen engine— the improvements that no one had been able to figure out hitherto. 

Lesson Two: Keep looking for improvement opportunities in your trade, take those opportunities as challenges, and work hard to tackle them. Watt was supposed to repair the laboratory steam engine model, but he identified an opportunity in the task, took it as a challenge, and finally won over it. Just like Edison who had not invented the light bulb but improved it for practical viability, Watt’s improvements on Newcomen’s steam engine were no less than a reinvention. 

In 1769, Watt had his steam engine improvements patented but in order to build a practical steam engine, he needed a lot of money. He found a financier in John Roebuck, a mine owner. But this proved to be a brief partnership; four years later, Roebuck went bankrupt and sold his shares to a wealthy manufacturer from Birmingham, named Mathew Boulton. 

In 1775, Watt started a highly successful partnership with Boulton. They complemented each other perfectly—it was an excellent combination of Watt’s engineering ingenuity and Boulton’s commercial skills. News of Watt’s super-efficient steam engines spread fast, and as Boulton & Watt engines found their way into ever more applications, the Industrial Revolution kick started. 

Lesson Three: Find a trustworthy partner who can complement your shortcomings. Watt was a brilliant inventor but the commercial success of his improved steam engine was impossible without the financial support and business genius of Mathew Boulton—this is akin to the fact that Nikola Tesla’s success in the Battle of Currents over Thomas Edison could not have occurred without the support of George Westinghouse. 

Until the mid-eighteenth century, horses were used for most demanding labor. With the advent of the steam engine, machinery began to replace horses for various tasks. However, the transition received major resistance from folks who were skeptical about the efficacy and reliability of machines over horses. To market his improved steam engine, Watt had to convince the skeptics. 

Watt understood that the potential buyers of his engines would be inclined to compare the performance of steam engines with that of pony horses. Therefore, he drew a comparison between the two technologies and claimed that one of his improved steam engines could produce enough power to replace ten cart-pulling horses or ten horsepower. 

The comparison appealed to his potential customers as well as competitors, creating a measure of power known as “horsepower”. Though the scientific unit for power in use today is Watt (in the honor of James Watt), horsepower is still commonly used to indicate power of automotive engines.  

Lesson Four: Speak to your customers in the language they can understand. You might be a technical expert but your customers would be least interested in your technical jargon; they prefer to listen if you have the solution to their problem. Realizing the same marketing principle, Watt presented a convincing comparison of his improved steam engines versus horse carts. 

In 1800, aged 64, James Watt retired as a wealthy businessman. Both Watt and Boulton passed their partnership to the next generation. Watt’s achievements were amply recognized during his lifetime: in 1806, he was made the doctor of laws at the university of Glasgow; he became a foreign associate of the French Academy of Sciences in 1814; and he was offered a baronetcy, which he declined gracefully. 

While Watt was already a rich old man in his sixties, his inventiveness was still young and alive. Continuing with his research, he came up with a couple of new patents including double-acting steam engine, the rotary engine, the steam pressure indicator, and even a copying machine. The rotary engine was a crucial invention as it enabled to drive wheels rather than the simpler up and down pumping motion of earlier machines. 

Lesson Five: Do not let your passion die with age and achievements. Even after retiring as a wealthy businessman, James Watt continued with his inventions and improvements well into his sixties and seventies. Albert Einstein had a similar ending: while on his deathbed, he was still working on his Unified Fields Theory.

James Watt—the pioneer of industrial revolution—died in 1819, aged 83. We still remember him as Watt (the scientific unit of power) as well as whenever the term horsepower is mentioned.

22 thoughts on “Five Professional Lessons from Watt’s Inventive Career

  1. These are some valuable lessons – thank you for sharing them and doing such a good summary! I totally agree with all of them, especially number 4: it’s so important to realise that other people don’t know what you know, so communication is most effective when you speak to them in a way they’ll understand (without being patronising!)

    Liked by 7 people

  2. I’m new here and only two posts in. You have a such an informative page and it’s wonderful to see how you’ve compiled all of these lessons to pick up from all in one place as opposed to never searching for them.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. As a Scot and also a former engineer (software/systems) I obviously knew much about Watt, but I thoroughly enjoyed this detailed précis of his life and work.
    Excellent piece.
    Thank you for following Sound Bite Fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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