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Thumbnail of James Watt (source)
James Watt
(19 Jan 1736 - 19 Aug 1819)

Scottish engineer and inventor whose greatly improved designs of steam engines made a major contribution to the Industrial Revolution.

Invention of the Steam Engine

by James Watt

from John Robison, System of Mechanical Philosophy (1822)

Detail from 1792 portrait of James Watt - head and shoulders
James Watt portrait (1792) (source)

[p.113] My attention was first directed in the year 1759 to the subject of steam-engines, by the late Dr Robison himself, then a student in the University of Glasgow, and nearly of my own age. He at that time threw out an idea of applying the power of the steam-engine to the moving of wheel-carriages, and to other purposes, but the scheme was not matured, and was soon abandoned on his going abroad.

About the year 1761 or 1762, I tried some experiments on the force of steam, in a Papin’s digester, and formed a species of steam-engine by fixing upon it a syringe one-third of an inch diameter, with a solid piston, and furnished also with a cock to admit the steam from the digester, or shut it off at pleasure, as well as to open a communication from the inside of the syringe to the open air, by which the steam contained in the syringe might escape. When the communication between the digester and syringe was opened, the steam entered the syringe, and by its action upon the piston raised a considerable weight (15 lbs.) with which it was loaded.

When this was raised as high as was thought proper, the communication with the digester was shut, and that with the atmosphere opened; the steam then made its escape, and the weight descended. The operations were repeated, and though in this experiment the cock was turned by hand, it was easy to see how it could be done by the machine itself, and to make it work with perfect regularity. But I soon relinquished the idea of constructing an engine upon this principle, from being sensible it would be liable to some of the objections against Savery’s engine, viz. the danger of bursting the boiler, and the difficulty of making the joints tight, and also that a great part of the power of the steam would be lost, because no vacuum was formed to assist the descent of the piston. I, however, described this engine in the fourth article of the specification of my patent of 1769; and again in the specification of another patent in the year 1784, together with a mode of applying it to the moving of wheel-carriages.

The attention necessary to the avocations of business prevented me from then prosecuting the subject farther; but in the winter of 1763-4, having occasion to repair a model of Newcomen’s engine belonging to the Natural Philosophy class of the University of Glasgow, my mind was again directed to it. At that period, my knowledge was derived principally from Desaguliers, and partly from Belidor. I set about repairing it as a mere mechanician, [p.114] and when that was done and it was set to work, I was surprised to find that its boiler could not supply it with steam, though apparently quite large enough (the cylinder of the model being two inches in diameter and six inches stroke, and the boiler about nine inches diameter). By blowing the fire it was made to take a few strokes, but required an enormous quantity of injection water, though it was very lightly loaded by the column of water in the pump. It soon occurred that this was caused by the little cylinder exposing a greater surface to condense the steam than the cylinders of larger engines did in proportion to their respective contents. It was found that by shortening the column of water in the pump, the boiler could supply the cylinder with steam, and that the engine would work regularly with a moderate quantity of injection. It now appeared that the cylinder of the model being of brass, would conduct heat much better than the cast-iron cylinders of larger engines (generally covered on the inside with a stony crust), and that considerable advantage could be gained by making the cylinders of some substance that would receive and give out heat slowly: of these, wood seemed to be the most likely, provided it should prove sufficiently durable.

A small engine was therefore constructed with a cylinder six inches diameter, and twelve inches stroke, made of wood, soaked in linseed oil, and baked to dryness. With this engine many experiments were made; but it was soon found that the wooden cylinder was not likely to prove durable, and that the steam condensed in filling it still exceeded the proportion of that required for large engines according to the statements of Desaguliers. It was also found, that all attempts to produce a better exhaustion by throwing in more injection, caused a disproportionate waste of steam. On reflection, the cause of this seemed to be the boiling of water in vacuo at low heats, a discovery lately made by Dr Cullen, and some other philosophers (below 100°, as I was then informed), and, consequently, at greater heats, the water in the cylinder would produce to steam which would, in part, resist the pressure of the atmosphere.

By experiments which I then tried upon the heats at which water boils under several pressures greater than that of the atmosphere, it appeared, that when the heats proceeded in an arithmetical, the elasticities proceeded in some geometrical ratio; and by laying down a curve from my data, I ascertained the particular one near enough for my purpose. It also appeared, that any approach to a vacuum could only be obtained by throwing in large quantities of injection, which would cool the cylinder so much as to require quantities of steam to heat it again, out of proportion to the power gained by the more perfect vacuum; and that the old engineers had acted wisely in contenting themselves with loading the engine with only six or seven pounds on each square inch of the area of the piston.

It being evident [p.115] that there was a great error in Dr Desaguliers’ calculations of Mr Beighton’s experiments on the bulk of steam, a Florence flask, capable of containing about a pound of water, had about one ounce of distilled water put into it; a glass tube was fitted into its mouth, and the joining made tight by lapping that part of the tube with pack-thread covered with glazier’s putty. When the flask was set upright, the tube reached down near to the surface of the water, and in that position the whole was placed in a tin reflecting oven before a fire, until the water was wholly evaporated, which happened in about an hour, and might have been done sooner had I not wished the heat not much to exceed that of boiling water. As the air in the flask was heavier than the steam, the latter ascended to the top, and expelled the air through the tube.

When the water was all evaporated, the oven and flask were removed from the fire, and a blast of cold air was directed against one side of the flask, to collect the condensed steam in one place. When all was cold, the tube was removed, the flask and its contents were weighed with care; and the flask being made hot, it was dried by blowing into it by bellows, and when weighed again, was found to have lost rather more than four grains, estimated at 4⅓ grains.

When the flask was filled with water, it was found to contain about 17⅛ ounces avoirdupois of that fluid, which gave about 1800 for the expansion of water converted into steam of the heat of boiling water.

This experiment was repeated with nearly the same result; and in order to ascertain whether the flask had been wholly filled with steam, a similar quantity of water was for the third time evaporated , and, while the flask was still cold, it was placed inverted, with its mouth (contracted by the tube) immersed in a vessel of water, which it sucked in as it cooled, until in the temperature of the atmosphere it was filled to within half-an-ounce measure of water. In the contrivance of this experiment I was assisted by Dr Black. In Dr Robinson’s edition of Dr Black’s lectures, Vol. I. page 147, the latter hints at some experiments upon this subject as made by him; but I have no knowledge of any except those which I made myself.

In repetitions of this experiment at a later date, I simplified the apparatus by omitting the tube, and laying the flask upon its side in the oven, partly closing its mouth by a cork having a notch on one side, and otherwise proceeding as has been mentioned.

I do not consider these experiments as extremely accurate, the only scale-beam [p.116] of a proper size, which I had then at my command not being very sensible, and the bulk of the steam being liable to be influenced by the heat to which it is exposed, which, in the way described, is not easily regulated or ascertained; but, from my experience in actual practice, I esteem the expansion to be rather more than I have computed.

A boiler was constructed which showed, by inspection, the quantity of water evaporated in any given time, and thereby ascertained the quantity of steam used in every stroke by the engine, which I found to be several times the full of the cylinder. Astonished at the quantity of water required for the injection, and the great heat it had acquired from the small quantity of water in the form of steam which had been used in filling the cylinder, and thinking I had made some mistake, the following experiment was tried:—A glass tube was bent at right angles, one end was inserted horizontally into the spout of a tea-kettle, and the other part was immersed perpendicularly in well-water contained in a cylindrical glass vessel, and steam was made to pass through it until it ceased to be condensed, and the water in the glass vessel was become nearly boiling hot. The water in the glass vessel was then found to have gained an addition of about one-sixth part from the condensed steam. Consequently, water converted into steam can heat about six times its own weight of well-water to 212°, or till it can condense no more steam. Being struck with this remarkable fact, and not understanding the reason of it, I mentioned it to my friend Dr Black, who then explained to me his doctrine of latent heat, which he had taught for some time before this period (summer 1764), but having myself been occupied with the pursuits of business, if I had heard it I had not attended to it, when I thus stumbled upon one of the material facts by which that beautiful theory is supported.

On reflecting further, I perceived, that in order to make the best use of steam, it was necessary, first, that the cylinder should be maintained always as hot as the steam which entered it; and secondly, that when the steam was condensed, the water of which it was composed, and the injection itself, should be cooled down to 100°, or lower, where that was possible. The means of accomplishing these points did not immediately present themselves; but early in 1765 it occurred to me, that if a communication were opened between a cylinder containing steam, and another vessel which was exhausted of air and other fluids, the steam, as an elastic fluid, would immediately rush into the empty vessel, and continue so to do until it had established an equilibrium; and if that vessel were kept very cool by an injection or otherwise, more steam would continue to enter until the whole was condensed. But both the vessels being exhausted, or nearly so, how were the injection water, [p.117] the air which would enter with it, and the condensed steam, to be got out?

This I proposed, in my own mind, to perform in two ways. One was by adapting to the second vessel a pipe reaching downwards more than 34 feet, by which the water would descend (a column of that length overbalancing the atmosphere), and by extracting the air by means of a pump.

The second method was by employing a pump, or pumps, to extract both the air and the water, which would be applicable in all places, and essential in those cases where there was no well or pit.

This latter method was the one I then preferred, and is the only one I afterwards continued to use. In Newcomen’s engine, the piston is kept tight by water, which could not be applicable in this new method; as, if any of it entered into a partially exhausted and hot cylinder, it would boil and prevent the production of a vacuum, and would also cool the cylinder, by its evaporation during the descent of the piston.

I proposed to remedy this defect by employing wax, tallow, or other grease, to lubricate and keep the piston tight. It next occurred to me, that the mouth of the cylinder being open, the air which entered to act on the piston would cool the cylinder, and condense some steam on again filling it. I therefore proposed to put an air-tight cover upon the cylinder, with a hole and stuffing-box for the piston-rod to slide through and to admit steam above the piston to act upon it instead of the atmosphere. [N.B. The piston-rod sliding through a stuffing-box was new in steam-engines; it was not necessary in Newcomen’s engine, as the mouth of the cylinder was open, and the piston stem was square and very clumsy. The fitting the piston-rod to the piston by a cone was an after improvement of mine (about 1774).] There still remained another source of the destruction of steam, the cooling of the cylinder by the external air, which would produce an internal condensation whenever steam entered it, and which would be repeated every stroke; this I proposed to remedy by an external cylinder containing steam, surrounded by another of wood, or of some other substance which would conduct heat slowly.

Diagram of Watt's Single-Acting Pumping-Engine for Mines
Watt’s Single-Acting Pumping-Engine for Mines (source)

When once the idea of the separate condensation was started, all these improvements followed as corollaries in quick succession, so that in the course of one or two days, the invention was thus far complete in my mind, and I immediately set about an experiment to verify it practically. I took a large brass syringe, 1¾ inches diameter, and 10 inches long, made a cover and bottom [p.118] to it of tin-plate, with a pipe to convey steam to both ends of the cylinder from the boiler; another pipe to convey steam from the upper end to the condenser (for, to save apparatus, I inverted the cylinder). I drilled a hole longitudinally through the axis of the stem of the piston, and fixed a valve at its lower end, to permit the water which was produced by the condensed steam on first filling the cylinder, to issue. The condenser used upon this occasion consisted of two pipes of thin tin-plate, ten or twelve inches long, and about one-sixth inch diameter, standing perpendicular, and communicating at top with a short horizontal pipe of large diameter, having an aperture on its upper side which was shut by a valve opening upwards. These pipes were joined at bottom to another perpendicular pipe of about an inch diameter, which served for the air and water-pump; and both the condensing pipes and the air-pump were placed in a small cistern filled with cold water. [N.B. This construction of the condenser was employed from knowing that heat penetrated thin plates of metal very quickly, and considering that if no injection was thrown into an exhausted vessel, there would be only the water of which the steam had been composed, and the air which entered with the steam, or through the leaks, to extract.]

The steam-pipe was adjusted to a small boiler. When steam was produced, it was admitted into the cylinder, and soon issued through the perforation of the rod, and at the valve of the condenser. When it was judged that the air was expelled, the steam-cock was shut, and the air-pump piston-rod was drawn up, which leaving the small pipes of the condenser in a state of vacuum, the steam entered them and was condensed. The piston of the cylinder immediately rose and lifted a weight of about 18 lbs., which was hung to the lower end of the piston-rod. The exhaustion cock was shut, the steam was readmitted into the cylinder, and the operation was repeated, the quantity of steam consumed, and the weights it could raise were observed, and, excepting the non-application of the steam-case and external covering, the invention was complete, in so far as regarded the savings of steam and fuel.

A large model, with an outer cylinder and wooden case, was immediately constructed, and the experiments made with it served to verify the expectations I had formed, and to place the advantage of the invention beyond the reach of doubt. It was found convenient afterwards to change the pipe-condenser for an empty vessel, generally of a cylindrical form, into which an injection played, and in consequence of there being more water and air to extract, to enlarge the air-pump.

The change was made, because, in order to procure a surface sufficiently extensive to condense the steam of a large engine, the pipe-condenser would [p.119] require to be very voluminous, and because the bad water with which engines are frequently supplied would crust over the thin plates, and prevent their conveying the heat sufficiently quick. The cylinders were also placed with their mouths upwards, and furnished with a working-beam and other apparatus as was usual in the ancient engines; the inversion of the cylinder, or rather of the piston-rod, in the model, being only an expedient to try more easily the new invention, and being subject to many objections in large engines.

In 1768 I applied for letters patent for my “Methods of Lessening the Consumption of Steam, and, consequently of Fuel, in Fire-Engines,” which passed seals in January 1769, and my Specification was enrolled in the Chancery in April following.

[In this narrative of his invention, in his own words, James Watt gives an account of the experiments and reflections which led up to his first patent. It was published as a long footnote appended to a reprinted article on the 'Steam-Engine'. The original article was written by John Robison for the Encyclopedia Britannica (1797), and subsequently reprinted in System of Mechanical Philosophy (1822), Vol 2, 113-119. The latter book, published after his death, was a collection of works by Robison, with Notes by David Brewster, who invited input from Watt. The reprint of the Britannica article was thereby included in edited form and had extensive footnotes by Watt, to provide corrections regarding the history of the steam engine from his own knowledge. — Webmaster]

Images (not in original text) from sources shown above. (To improve readability, a few paragraph breaks have been added in above text.) Text from John Robison, James Watt and David Brewster, A System of Mechanical Philosophy (1822), Vol. 2, 113-119, footnote. (source)

See also:
  • Science Quotes by James Watt.
  • 19 Jan - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Watt's birth.
  • More for James Watt on Today in Science History page.
  • James Watt: Making the World Anew, by Ben Russell. - book suggestion.
  • Booklist for James Watt.

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

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