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James Watt

Born: 19 January 1736

Died: 25 August 1819

Nationality: British

James Watt was the father of the industrial revolution. He was born in 1736 in Greenock, Scotland and came from a successful family. His grandfather taught mathematics, and his father was a carpenter, who built ships. His mother was well educated. She taught him to read, while his father taught him arithmetic and writing. He excelled at math, science and engineering at secondary school.

At eighteen, following the death of his mother and a ship sinking that placed a financial burden on his family; James gave up his plans to go to university. Instead, he trained in London as a scientific instrument maker, specialising in mathematical and nautical instruments. Within two months, his skills were higher than others who had been in training for two years.

After a year in London, he found work at Glasgow University, repairing instruments for the astronomy department. The professors soon realised the young man in the workshop had a brain equal to their own. They began calling on him to discuss their work. In 1763, aged 27, Watt encountered a working steam engine, the Newcomen engine. Professor John Anderson, who used the engine as a demonstration in his physics classes, needed it repaired. Watt did the repair, but was astonished at how little work the engine was able to do.

At that time, Newcomen engines had been used in Britain for 50 years, and no-one had found a way to improve them. Watt decided that he could make a better engine. After two years of experimenting and thinking with water and steam in metal vessels, he realised what the problem with the Newcomen steam engine was. He redesigned the engine and by the end of 1765, a 29 year-old Watt had built his first small-scale steam engine, featuring a separate condensing chamber, and a steam jacket. This design and his work revolutionised the field of steam and power, hence why the unit of power the ‘Watt’ is named after him.

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