Early Modern Times – steamer of ’69

Early Modern Times - steamer of '69

Dear readers,

Welcome to the start of summer! It not only marks 50 years since the ‘best days of my life’, according to Bryan Adams, but the steamy days of summer might also remind us of the 250th anniversary of the steamer of 1769: i.e., James Watt’s patent for the modern steam engine, which is said to have kick-started the Industrial Revolution. Because of Watt and his invention (foreshadowed in the dramatic 1855 painting above by James Eckford Lauder), the Industrial Revolution, it is thought, went ‘full steam ahead!’ Furthermore, August 25 of this year will be the 200th anniversary of his death at the high Watt-age of 83. How did Watt arrive at this patent? And why do some historians regard Watt’s patent as having impeded the progress of steam technology? In sum, Watt’s the problem?

Watt was born in 1736 and raised in Greenock, near Glasgow in Scotland, the more Enlightened half of Great Britain in the eighteenth century. He moved to Glasgow and then London to train as a maker of mathematical instruments: presumably, this would include the triangle, musical scales, the cube-a, and the theorem-bone in order to play compasstoral symphonies and quandrangelic choruses. He apprenticed in London with John Morgan for little pay and long hours, which should have been expected from a master whose last name is close to the German word for ‘morning’.

Watt returned to Glasgow, and by 1764 was repairing a model Newcomen steam engine. This was invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen, and used to pump water from coal mines. The device was also disliked by xenophobic ancestors of today’s UKIP, who typically ranted, ‘we don’t like all these Newcomens in Britain taking away our jobs.’ More pointedly, it was notoriously inefficient, as it lost 3/4 of the thermal energy in its heating engine cylinder: the steam was trapped in the cylinder and then cooled down by injections of cold water in order to condense the steam and reduce pressure. Watt noted its inefficient operation and lukewarm potential; he threw cold water on this design. To rectify this ‘mist’ opportunity, he ingeniously added a cylinder to the engine specifically to condense the steam. Thus, the same temperature could be maintained in the cylinder as the steam itself, and so little energy would be absorbed by the cylinder itself for far greater efficiency as heat energy would be directly converted to mechanical energy. Watt was gassed up on this and on fire!

Watt secured a patent for this vastly improved steam engine in 1769. Eventually, he entered a partnership with the English engineer and manufacturer Matthew Boulton. Given this ‘sweat’ deal, the latter was an enthusiastic partner; and Watt recognised that he would have ‘steadfast’ business dealings with ‘Boult-on’. The patent was extended by the British parliament in 1775 to 1800, and Watt’s design was installed throughout British factories. Watt and Boulton continued making improvements to the design, and appropriately enough, Watt became powerful as well as very rich.

Many historians, however, have cited the steamer of ’69 as a classic example of a patent impeding technological progress–in this case, the development of high-pressure steam engines, as this 2011 article by George Selgin and John L. Turner explains. Watt’s design was certainly an improvement over Newcomen’s steam engine, but the argument goes that the patent (and thus Watt and Boulton’s monopoly over steam engine design for the rest of the 18th century) prevented competitors from developing high-pressure engines–especially given Watt’s view (shared by many others) that the risks of high-pressure steam engines would land engineers in hot water. According to this account, for the progress of industrial technology, Watt’s monopoly was a ‘patent failure’.

Selgin and Turner counter that the patent did not, in fact, prevent other inventors from designing non-condensing high-pressure steam engines. It may be true, however, that Watt’s reputation and influence–not his patent–inhibited such innovation, given that he ‘fumed’ against high-pressure steam technology as dangerous and unworkable. Ironically, it was Watt who placed unduly high pressure on the inventors, who may have asked themselves, ‘Watt is he smoking?’ In the end, Watt left an ambiguous legacy in this steamy saga, though it is unlikely that his posthumous reputation will ever go up in smoke.

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Steam Engine-and-tonic Studies Program

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