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Watt


WATT, JAMES, a celebrated natural philosopher and civil engineer, the great improver of the steam-engine, was born at Greenock, January 19, 1736. His great-grandfather, a farmer of Aberdeenshire, was killed in one of Montrose’s battles, when his property, being forfeited, was lost to the family. The son of this man, Thomas Watt, established himself in Greenock as a teacher of mathematics and the elements of navigation, and was baron bailie of the burgh of barony of Crawford’s Dyke. He had two sons, the elder, John, a teacher of mathematics and surveyor in Glasgow, died in 1737, at the age of fifty, leaving a ‘Survey of the River Clyde, from Glasgow to the Point of Toward,’ which was published by his brother several years afterwards. The younger son, James, the father of the celebrated engineer, was a builder and merchant in Greenock, of which town he was for a quarter of a century councilor, treasurer, and one of the magistrates. He died at the age of 84, in 1782.

James Watt, the subject of this notice, was the elder and only surviving child of the latter, his brother, John Watt, a youth of promising abilities, being lost at sea soon after he came of age. He received his first instructions in reading from his mother, whose name was Agnes Muirhead, whilst his father taught him writing and arithmetic. He was afterwards placed at the elementary public school of Greenock, but the delicacy of his health interfered with his regular attendance on the classes, and for the greater part of his time he was confined to his chamber, where he devoted himself to unassisted study. He early displayed a partiality for mechanics, and when only six years of age he was observed at work with a piece of chalk upon the floor of a room drawing a geometrical problem. While still a mere boy, his attention began to be attracted to the great power of steam, as the following interesting anecdote will show: -- His aunt, Mrs. Muirhead, sitting with him one evening at the tea-table, said, “James, I never saw such an idle boy! Take a book, and employ yourself usefully; for the last half hour you have not spoken a word, but taken off the lid of that kettle and put it on again, holding now a cup and now a silver spoon over the steam, watching how it rises from the spout, and catching and counting the drops of water.” It appears that when thus reproved, his active mind was engaged in investigating the condensation by steam. We are told that he prosecuted almost every branch of science with equal success, and especially took so much interest in reading books on medicine and surgery, that he was one day detected conveying into his room the head of a child which had died of some obscure disease, that he might take occasion to dissect it.

After passing a year with some Glasgow relatives, in 1755, while only eighteen years old, a desire for improvement in mechanical art induced him to go to London, where he placed himself under the tuition of Mr. John Morgan, mathematical and nautical instrument maker, in Finch Lane, Cornhill. To that gentleman an apprenticeship fee of twenty guineas was paid with him. Ten hours a-day was given up to a trying sedentary employment, which involved much exertion of thought as well as much weariness to the frame. He also worked over hours to win a little money for himself, and made the sum of eight shillings a-week suffice for his nourishment. At the end of a year ill health compelled him to return to Greenock. He now pursued his studies and occupations without more instruction, and in 1757 settled in Glasgow as a maker of mathematical instruments. Meeting with opposition from some of the corporations, on account of his supposed infringement of their privileges, the professors of the university interfered, and attached him to their establishment. He had been employed to repair some astronomical instruments which had been bequeathed to the university by a Jamaica proprietor, and had suffered some injury by the voyage. This commission earned for him more than the £5 which, as the records bear witness, he received for his work. Before he had reached his twenty-first year he was allowed to occupy a small workshop for carrying on his business within the college precincts, with the title of ‘mathematical instrument maker to the university.” He had also an apartment within the college, where he lived. His principal protectors on the occasion were Adam Smith, author of ‘The Wealth of Nations;’ Dr. Black, the celebrated discoverer of latent heat; Robert Simson, the eminent mathematician; and Dr. Dick, professor of natural philosophy. These great men thought then that they were only delivering a zealous and able workman from the overbearing of the corporations, but soon after recognizing in him a first-rate man, they bestowed on him their warmest friendship. Before the close of his residence in the university, which lasted six years, his workshop became a sort of academy, whither students, professors, and eminent men of Glasgow resorted, to discuss difficult questions of art, science, and literature. “When any difficulty arrested us in the university,” says Robison, one of the most illustrious editors of the British Cyclopedia, in an unpublished paper quoted by Arago, “we used to run to our workman. When once excited, any subject became for him a text for serious study and discoveries. He never let go his hold, until he had entirely cleared up the proposed question. One day the desired solution seemed to require that Leopold’s work on machines should be read; Watt immediately learned German. On another occasion, and for a similar reason, he rendered himself master of the Italian language.” Although totally insensible to the charms of music, and not able to distinguish one note from another, he constructed an organ, which exhibited essential improvements in the mechanical details, in the regulators, and in the method of measuring the force of the wind, and which showed, too, no deficiency in its powers of harmony.

Having directed much of his attention to the subject of the elasticity of steam, and its consequent availability as a motive power, about 1761 or 1762 Watt tried some experiments on Papin’s digester, -- the contrivance of an ingenious French émigré of that name, made in London to realize in practice his discovery of its property of producing a vacuum in space by means of refrigeration, as a counterpoise and auxiliary to its elasticity, in obtaining an alternate or oscillatory motion, -- and he had worked with strong steam a small model of his own construction, but the imperfections inherent to its application in the crude model of the Huguenot doctor prevented him at the time from proceeding with it farther. In the winter of 1763-4 he was employed by Professor Anderson, who had succeeded Dr. Dick in the chair of natural philosophy, to put in order a working model of a steam engine upon Newcomen’s construction, which had never worked well. In this machine, then first made known to Watt, the constructor, -- a hardware dealer at Dartmouth, whose name it bore, -- following Papin in the use of the vacuum-producing, in conjunction with the expansive, qualities of steam, had, -- by separating the digester of the latter, which was boiler, cylinder, and condenser in one, into two vessels; a boiler or caldron, and a cylinder; the former for generating the steam, and the latter, receiving it from the caldron, for exciting alternate motion, although of a slow kind, first by its expansion, and next by its condensation, -- produced a real and useful motive power, and opened the way to further and far more important improvements on the part of the subject of our memoir. In Newcomen’s engine, the vacuum was at first produced by external refrigeration. A second and larger cylinder enveloped the working one, and into the circular space between them an ample quantity of cold water was poured, the chill of which gradually penetrated through all the thickness of the metal, and at least reached the steam itself. The tardiness with which steam would cool and lose its elasticity by means of such a process was a serious impediment to its general usefulness. But accident fortunately soon indicated a very simple way of obviating it. The closely fitted but moveable circular plate called a piston, which travels up and down the inner circumference of the cylinder with each expansion and contraction of the steam below, was at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the art of casting metallic cylinders was in its infancy, covered with water on its upper surface, intended to fill up the vacancies between its circumference and the surface of the cylinder. One day the piston leaked, and, to the great surprise of the workmen, the engine began to oscillate much faster than usual. It was discovered that the drops of cold water that fell into the cylinder, by passing through the steam, annihilated it rapidly. This incident led to the abandonment of exterior refrigeration, and means were taken to shed a shower of cold water throughout the capacity of the cylinder at the instant of the piston’s descent. The alternate up and down motion now acquired all the desired swiftness. To open and close the taps for the alternate letting on and shutting off of the steam and cold water through apertures into the cylinder required the uninterrupted attention of the person whose duty this was. The observant attention of a play-loving boy, by name Humphrey Potter, by connecting these taps with cords to the beam which Newcomen attached to his piston rod, so as to be moved when it, in ascending or descending oscillation, reached positions at the times and in the directions required for such openings and shuttings, enabled him to join his companions in play, and for the first time the engine worked by itself.

The little model of Newcomen’s engine in the hands of a workman like Watt had soon the defects of its construction removed; and from that time it was made to work yearly under the eye of the delighted students. A man of common mind would have rested satisfied with this success. Watt, on the contrary, saw cause in it for deep study. His researches were successively directed to all the points that appeared likely to clear up the theory of the machine. He ascertained the proportion in which water dilates in passing from a state of fluidity into that of vapour, the quantity and weight of steam expended at each oscillation by one of Newcomen’s engines of known dimensions; the quantity of cold water that must be injected into the cylinder to give a certain force to the piston’s descending oscillation; and finally the elasticity of steam at various temperatures.

Here was enough to occupy the life of a laborious physicist, yet Watt found means to conduct all these numerous and difficult researches to a good termination without the work of the shop suffering thereby. The properties of steam being considered, it will readily occur to the reader that two conditions irreconcilable with each other are required for the economic working of Newcomen’s engine. When the piston descends, the cylinder requires to be cold, otherwise it meets steam more or less elastic retarding the operation of its descent by pressure of the external atmospheres. Again, when into a cylinder so cooled there flows steam at the high temperature of 212 deg., that steam has a portion of its heat abstracted by becoming partially fluid, and until the cylinder regains a temperature of boiling water, its elasticity will be greatly attenuated. Hence slowness of motion, for the counterpoise will not raise the piston until there is sufficient spring in the cylinder to counterbalance the action of the atmospheres. In consequence of this, the Glasgow model at each oscillation expended a volume of steam several times larger than that of the cylinder. Could the successive heatings and coolings, the inconveniences of which have just been described, be avoided, the expenditure of steam, or, in other words, of fuel, and consequently the pecuniary cost of the working of the machine, would be several times less. In the most simple manner Watt solved this apparently insolvable problem. It sufficed for him to add to the former arrangement of the engine a vessel totally distinct from the cylinder, and communicating with it only by a small tube furnished with a tap. This vessel, now known as the condenser, is Watt’s principal invention. A discovery which has revolutionized the mechanics and politics of the globe deserves to have its action explained.

If there be free communication between a cylinder filled with steam and another vessel which contains neither steam nor air, the steam from the cylinder will pass rapidly into the empty vessel, and the movement will continue until the elasticity becomes equal in both. If, by an abundant and constant injection of water, the whole capacity and sides of this other vessel be kept constantly cold, then the steam will condense as soon as it enters it; all the steam that formerly filled the cylinder will be gradually annihilated; the cylinder will thus be cleared of steam without its sides being in the least cooled, and the fresh supply of steam with which it will require to be filled, will not lose any of its elasticity. Now the condenser attracts to itself all the steam contained in the cylinder, partly because it contains some cold water, and partly because it contains no elastic fluids, but as soon as some steam has been condensed, these two conditions on which success depended, have disappeared; the condensing water has become hot by absorbing the latent caloric of the steam, and a considerable portion of steam has been generated at the expense of that hot water. The cold water contained, besides, some atmospheric air, which must have been disengaged during its heating. If this hot water was not carried away after each operation, together with the steam and air contained in the condenser, in the long run no effect would be produced. Watt, however, attained this treble purpose by the aid of a common pump, called an air-pump, the piston of which carries a rod suitably attached to the beam worked by the engine. The power required to keep the air-pump in motion diminishes so far that of the engine; but this is a very small portion indeed of the loss which under the previous arrangement was occasioned by the steam being condensed on the refrigerated surface of the body of the cylinder.

Another invention of Watt deserves notice, the advantages of which are easy to perceive. In Newcomen’s engine, when the piston descended, it was by the weight of the atmospheres. Being much cooler than the metal cylinder, which was open at the top, in proportion as it expanded over the surface of its sides, it cooled them likewise; a cooling which was not compensated during the ascent of the piston except at the expense of a certain quantity of steam. This atmospheric action is eliminated in the engine of Watt by the following arrangement: -- The top of the cylinder is closed by a metal cover, only pierced in the centre by a hole furnished with greased tow stuffed hard in, through which, however, the rod of the piston has free motion, yet not allowing passage to air or steam. The piston thus divides the capacity of the cylinder into two distinct and well-closed areas. When it has to descend, the steam from the caldron reaches freely the upper area through a tube conveniently placed, and pushes it from top to bottom as the atmosphere had done in the engine of Newcomen. There is no obstacle to this motion, because while it is going on, the base area of the cylinder only is in communication with the condenser, wherein all the steam from that lower area reassumes its fluid state. As soon as the piston has quite reached the bottom, the mere turning of a tap brings the two areas of the cylinder, above and below the piston, into communication with each other, so that both shall be filled with steam of the same degree of elasticity, and the piston being thus equally acted upon upward and downward, ascends, as in Newcomen’s atmospheric engine, again to the top of the cylinder, merely by the action of a slight counterpoise.

Pursuing his researches on the means of economizing steam, Watt further reduced the result of the refrigeration of the external surface of the cylinder almost to nothing. He surrounded the metal cylinder with a wooden casing of large diameter, called a jacket, promoting the uniform warmth of the enclosed cylinder, by filling the intermediate annular space with steam.

Such was Watt’s engine as at the date when he took out his first patent in 1769 – a modified, a vastly improved and incomparably more economical machine than Newcomen’s, yet still, like it, having power only during the descending oscillation of the piston. By the facility of its working properties, capable perhaps, in skilled hands, of other uses, but only as yet, like it, a pump – a mere pump available for drainage, and rendered remunerative to him, by the payment on the part of the proprietors of mines who employed it, of a duty of the value of one-third of the coal saved by each of their engines. This duty established the commercial importance of the invention, even at this stage, by the fact, that the proprietors of one mine, the Chasewater, gladly compounded for it, by an annual payment for the work of three pumps alone, of the sum of two thousand four hundred pounds.

Passing over meantime the ordinary incidents of his life, let us continue our account of the improvements made by Watt on that wonderful adaptation of the properties of water called the steam-engine, which constitutes his greatest merit, and strongest claim on the gratitude of the whole family of man. He conceived the idea of transforming his machines from being merely pumps into universal motive powers, and of indefinite force.

Accordingly, after parliament, notwithstanding some opposition on the part, among others, of the celebrated Edmund Burke, had in 1774 granted, on his petition and that of his now friend and partner, Mr. Boulton of Soho, near Birmingham, a prolongation of twenty-five years to his patent of 1769, and their great establishment at Soho had begun to become the most useful school in practical mechanics for all England, Watt applied himself to the great task of its realization. His first step in this direction was the invention of the double stroke, or, as it is sometimes called, a double acting engine.

To conceive the principle of it, let the account already given of the modified or Newcomen’s engine he referred to. The cylinder is closed; the external air has no access to it; it is steam pressure, not atmospheric, that makes the piston to descend; the ascending movement is due to a simple counterpoise, because at the moment when this takes place, the steam being enabled to circulate freely from the higher to the lower portions of the cylinder, presses equally on the piston in both directions. It is easy to see, that the modified engine, or Newcomen’s, has power only during the descending oscillation. This serious defect was remedied by a very simple change, which produced the double acting machine.

In the engine known under this name, as well as in the one which we denominated the modified one, at the pleasure of the engineer or attendant the steam from the boiler goes freely above the piston, and presses it down without meeting with any obstacle; because at that moment the lower area of the cylinder is in communication with the condenser. Watt opened a communication between the caldron and the lower area of this piston; the foregoing movement once achieved, the communication between the caldron and the upper area of the cylinder is closed, and by the turning of a tap the steam can only now pass fro the caldron below the piston, which it elevates; at the same moment the steam in the upper area which had produced the descending movement, is by a communication with the condenser also introduced, and – a certain cock having been opened – transferred to the condenser to regain there its former fluid state. A contrary arrangement of the cocks again reverses this motion as soon as the piston has attained its maximum height. And thus similar effects are indefinitely reproduced. The motive power in both ascent and descent is now exclusively steam, which, except to the extent of the inequality arising from the weight of the piston, has the same power in both movements. Hence its name of the double acting engine.

To render this new motive power of easy and convenient application, Watt had other difficulties to overcome. It was necessary to convert the motion of the piston oscillating in a straight line, and therefore inflexible, into one of a beam or shaft that moved in a circular direction, or, in other words, revolved upon its axis. Perhaps the solution which he gave to this important problem is his most ingenious invention. The beautiful arrangement by which he accomplished this, called parallel motion, is an articulated parallelogram, which with each double oscillation develops and contracts itself with the smoothness of motion, -- “almost,” says Arago, from whom we quote this description, “with the grace, -- that charms us in the gestures of a consummate actor.” In its various transformations it exhibits the most curious geometrical conditions, three of its angles describing arcs of circles in space, while the fourth moves very nearly in a straight line. “When I saw it for the first time,” says Watt, “I was myself surprised at the regularity of its motion, and felt truly all the pleasure of novelty, as if I was examining the invention of another man.” The ingenuity and utility of this invention is shown in this, that Smeaton, the celebrated engineer, a great admirer of Watt, did not believe that in practice it could become a general means of imparting directly rotatory motion to axes, but that for the attainment of this end, the functions of the steam engine should be limited to pumping water to a height, whose descent again from the trough to the pallets of common hydraulic wheels would produce the desired result; a limitation that, even on land, would have shorn it of great part of its applicability, and on the water would have rendered its employment impossible.

The engine had now acquired universal motive powers, but not motive powers acting with regularity; and regularity of action is not less important than power as an element of success in industrial works. But what regularity of action could be expected from a motive power engendered by fire fed by shovels-full, and the coal itself of various qualities; and this under the direction of a workman, sometimes not very intelligent, almost always inattentive? In proportion as the fire is more intense, the motive steam will be more abundant; it will flow more rapidly into the cylinder, and make the piston move faster. Irregularities of movement under such conditions would seem to be inevitable. Against this serious defect the genius of Watt had to provide. Under his sagacious inventiveness the throttle valves, by which the steam issues from the boiler to enter the cylinder, and not constantly open to their full extent. As the working of the engine accelerates, these valves partly close; a certain volume of steam must therefore occupy a longer time in passing through them, and the acceleration ceases. The aperture of the valves, on the contrary, dilates when the motion slackens. The pieces required for these various changes connect the valves with the axes which the engine sets to work, by the introduction of an apparatus, the principle of which Watt discovered in the regulator of the sails of some flour mills; this he named the governor; it is now called the centrifugal regulator. Its efficacy is such, that some years ago, in the cotton-spinning manufactory of Mr. Lee, a clock was set in motion by the engine of the establishment, and it showed no great inferiority to a common spring clock.

This regulator, and the intelligent use of the rotatory-motion principle, is the secret – the true secret, of the astonishing perfection of the industrial products of the present age; -- this it is that now gives to the steam engine a rate entirely free from jerks. This is the element that enables it with equal success to embroider muslins and to forge anchors, to weave the most delicate webs, and to communicate a rapid motion to heavy mill-stones. These inventions formed the subject of successive patents in 1781, 1782, 1784, and 1785.

The principle of the steam detent had been neatly expressed in a letter from Watt to Dr. Small, dated 1769. It was put in practice in 1776 at Soho, and in 1778 at the Shadwell waterworks; and is fully described in the patent of 1782. Its application constitutes Watt’s celebrated expansion engine. Of late years great advantage has been found to result from it. It consists in not allowing a free access of steam from the boiler into the cylinder during the whole time of each oscillation of the cylinder. The communication is interrupted, for example, when the piston has reached one-third of its course. The two remaining thirds of the cylinder’s length are then traversed by virtue of the acquired velocity, and especially by the detention of the steam. Since its adoption the Cornwall engines have given unhoped-for results. With one bushed of coals they equal the labour of twenty men during ten hours. Some good judges esteem its economical importance as not inferior to that of the condenser.

A single illustration will enable every man to appreciate these inventions. It is borrowed from Sir John Herschel, and is quoted by Arago.

Herodotus records that the construction of the great pyramid of Egypt employed one hundred thousand men during twenty years. Its weight has been ascertained to be nearly five thousand tons. There are establishments in Britain where every week a quantity of coal is consumed sufficient, when converted into steam to raise this weight to the height of the centre of gravity of this mighty edifice.

In conclusion, there are few of the subsequent inventions or improvements of which the history of the steam engine offers such an admirable assemblage, that have not been developed from some of Watt’s early ideas. Engines without condensation; engines in which, in localities not freely supplied with cold water, the steam, after having acted, is allowed to escape into the open air; the detent to be used in engines having several cylinders; watertight pistons consisting entirely of pieces of metal; mercurial gauges to measure the elasticity of the steam as well in the caldron as in the condenser; a gauge to show at a glance the height of the water in the boiler; the indicator connecting the movements of the feeding pump with those of a float to prevent this level from ever varying to an inconvenient extent; all have either been first introduced, or proposed and their principle indicated by him. Nor has he been less fortunate in his endeavours to improve the boilers, to diminish the loss of heat, and to consume the smoke that escapes from common chimneys however great the height to which they may be carried.

To return to the incidents of his biography. During the period in which these work-renowned operations were being carried out, Watt had left the apartment assigned to him in Glasgow university (1763), had allied himself in marriage (1764) with his cousin, Miss Miller, -- an accomplished person of superior mind, whose never-failing sweetness and cheerfulness of disposition raised him from the indolence, the melancholy, and misanthropy that a nervous illness and the injustice of man had threatened to render fatal, and but for whom he would never have made his beautiful inventions public, -- had become the father of four children, two boys and two girls, -- was made, to his sad grief, a widower at the birth of a third boy, in 1773, and, after remaining so for some years, had again the happiness to find, in Miss MacGrigor, a companion worthy of him by the variety of her talents, the soundness of her judgment, and the energy of her character.

He had allowed two years to elapse after his happy idea of 1765, his capital invention of the cylinder, without his scarcely making an effort to apply it on a large scale. He had, through his friends, at last been put into communication with Dr. Roebuck, the founder of the large works at Carron celebrated to the present day. He had entered into partnership with him in the expected results of his discovery, ceding two-thirds of the profits for the use of the capital which the doctor was bound to supply. An engine constructed on the new principles had been set up at Kinneal, near Borrowstounness, and it had confirmed the expectations of theory. But the pecuniary embarrassments of Roebuck gave a check to their projects, and Watt, rather than struggle against difficulties which would undoubtedly, by proceeding with it, have been overcome, had given up his discovery, and till better times came round, in order to support himself and family in the meanwhile, had changed his business.

As a civil engineer Watt had been engaged from 1767 till the end of 1773 in surveying a rival line, crossing the Lomond passage, to the canal, afterwards carried out, connecting the two rivers of the Forth and the Clyde, for which Smeaton was then carrying on the triangulations and levellings; -- in drawing the plan of a canal that was to bring coals from Monkland to Glasgow, and in superintending its execution. He had also been occupying himself with several projects of a similar nature, such as that of a navigable canal across the isthmus of Crinan, which Rennie afterwards finished; he had been studying improvements in the ports of Ayr, Glasgow, and Greenock, -- constructing bridges at Hamilton and Rutherglen, -- and surveying the ground through which the celebrated Caledonian canal was afterwards to pass, -- all enterprises of greater of less merit, but the interest and importance of which were chiefly local, and such as neither their conception, direction, nor execution required a man like James Watt.

During the period over which our account of his labours on the steam engine extends he had also, as already adverted to, united himself in partnership, and in friendship more closely even than partnership, with Matthew Boulton of Birmingham. The inventor of the machine destined to form an epoch in the annals of the world, unable apparently to proceed under, or to extricate himself from, the conditions of a copartnery burdened with large disbursements for past experiments, or to interest unenlightened and timid capitalists to invest what would have been returned to them with fabulous profit, without a murmur bent his superior genius down to surveys, plans, and levelings, and saw with serene indifference six years of his patent of privilege roll into the past, when friends a second time interfered and opened relations between him and this enterprising, gifted, and amiable man, to whom, in consequence, in the early part of 1774, Dr. Roebuck, for certain considerations, assigned his interest in its right of use, a right which had then, however, only a few more years to run.

The justice which, to its honour, the British parliament, in granting, as we have seen, an extension for twenty-five years longer, to his patent, had meted out to the author of a discovery so priceless, was not followed by equal consideration on the part of those who more directly benefited by it. The Cornish miners paid the dues to the Soho engineers with increased repugnance from year to year. They availed themselves of the very earliest difficulties raised by plagiarists to claim release from all obligation. The matter was serious; it might compromise the social position of Watt; he therefore bestowed his entire attention to it, and became a lawyer. The long and expensive lawsuits that ensued during the seven years between 1792 and 1799, and which were all finally gained by him, would not otherwise deserve notice but for the fact that in the course of their prosecution all the eminent mechanicians and men of science then in England, including Roy, Herschel, Ramsden, Robison, Murdoch, and Rennie, eagerly presented themselves before the juries to testify to the rights of injured genius.

When Watt went to reside at Soho, Birmingham counted among the inhabitants of its vicinity several men of celebrity, among whom were Priestley, Darwin, Withering, and the father of Maria Edgeworth. These and other learned men, with Watt and Boulton, met once a-month, on the evening of full moon, a time chosen in order that the members might see their way home; and on that account their association was called the Lunar Society.

Each sitting of the Lunar Society was for Watt an opportunity for showing the fecundity of invention with which nature had endowed him. One day Darwin said to his companions, “I have imagined a double pen, -- a pen with two beaks, by the aid of which we may write every thing in duplicate.” Watt replied, “I hope to find a better solution of the problem.” Next day the copying machine was invented. It has since received various modifications, but its present form as used in counting-houses is described and drawn in Watt’s patent of 1780.

Warming houses by steam had been indicated as early as 1745 by Colonel Cooke, but the idea passed unheeded. Watt revived it; applied it; adopted it in his own house in 1783; and made calculations for halls of various sizes that served as guides in the beginning to many engineers.

To patient investigations, and an ardent love of justice on the part of his latest biographer, the celebrated Arago, we owe, -- fifty years after the event, -- the claim now established for Watt of being splendidly connected with the greatest and the most important discovery in modern chemistry; the discovery of the components of water.

After the experiments and discoveries of modern science had banished for ever the old idea that air was a purely simple element, water continued to preserve for itself that character, as handed down from the ancient philosophy. The year 1778 was at last signalized by an observation that went to the upsetting of this general belief.

Having placed a white porcelain saucer over a flame of hydrogen gas while burning tranquilly out of the mouth of a bottle, Macquer, a celebrated chemist, remarked that small drops of a fluid that was afterwards discovered to be pure water, covered that part of the saucer that was licked by the flame. He did not, however, dwell on the fact. He was touching a great discovery with his finger; but he did not perceive it.

In the commencement of the year 1781, Warltire, a name almost unknown but for this unsuggested idea, imagined that an electric spark in passing through certain gaseous mixtures must certainly produce decided changes on them, and fortunately foresaw that an explosion would accompany them. He therefore made the experiment in a metallic vase, having enclosed some air and some hydrogen in it.

In repeating Warltire’s experiment, Cavendish, as cited by Priestley, some time anterior to April 1783, obtained water by the detonation of oxygen and hydrogen. In a memoir dated the 21st of that month, Priestley added to the results of the experiments of his predecessors the remarkable circumstance, that the weight of the water deposited on the sides of the vase at the moment of the detonation is exactly the sum of that of the two gases. Priestley communicated this important result to Watt, who, with the penetration of a superior mind, immediately saw in it that water is not a simple body. “Are we not entitled to conclude from hence,” writes he to Priestley on the 26th April, “that water is a union of oxygen and hydrogen gas?” We employ the more exact chemical language of the present day instead of the terms phlogiston and dephlogisticated air current at that time, and used by Watt. The letter containing this clear statement was immediately communicated by Priestley to several learned men in London, and amongst others to the president of the Royal Society to be read at an early meeting of that body, but an expressed diffidence on the part of Watt to “have it brought before the public until his thoughts had been brought to the test of his own experiments,” came in aid of a scornful doubt on the part of the council as to the correctness of Priestley’s experiments, and retarded the reading by a year. It is inserted in the seventy-fourth volume of the Philosophical Transactions. As quoted (under its true date) in a letter by Watt to De Luc, of the 28th November in that year.

Before Watt’s paper was read, indeed only two months posterior to its being deposited in the archives of the Society, Lavoisier had detailed his experiments, in which he developed his views on the production of water by the combustion of oxygen and hydrogen; and on the 15th of January 1784, the celebrated memoir of Cavendish on the same subject, entitled ‘Experiments on Air,’ was read before the Royal Society of London. But it seems to be proved that on the occasion of his first experiments on 24th June 1783, Lavoisier was informed by the secretary of the Royal Society, then present, of those of Cavendish, and of the theory of the composition of water; and Cavendish, as one of the fellows of the Society, had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the conclusions of Watt for nearly two months before that time. Apart from all this, it seems to be beyond question that Watt was the first to present in a documentary shape the exposition of the components of water, and that there is not the hint of a suspicion that he had arrived at that exposition by means of any imparted information or suggestion. It is a circumstance not less remarkable, -- and proof of the complacency of Watt’s disposition, -- that beyond securing the reading of his paper and its insertion in the volume of the Journal referred to, -- confiding in the justice of posterity, -- he took no steps to vindicate the originality of his announcement even although urged to do so, than that so many years should have elapsed during which the merit of it has generally been assigned to others, until a foreign biographer, invoking that justice, has secured for him its recognition.

Towards the end of 1786 Mr. Watt and his partner had gone to Paris to improve the mode of raising water at Marly. On this occasion, among other eminent Frenchmen, he met Bertholiet, the chemist, who had just discovered the bleaching properties of chlorine. This discovery he frankly communicated to Watt, granted him permission to impart it to his father-in-law, Mr. MacGriger, --who then carried on an extensive bleaching establishment near Glasgow, -- and declined peremptorily and repeatedly to become a partner in its results, which were very lucrative. Watt not only gave directions for the construction of the proper vessels and machinery, but soon afterwards superintended the first trials, all of which were successful, and he had thus the merit of being the first to introduce this valuable improvement into Britain.

In 1800, on the expiration of his patent, he withdrew from the Soho establishment with an ample fortune, and was succeeded in the business by his two sons, the younger of whom, Gregory Watt, who had distinguished himself by his literary talents, and was the author of a paper on basalt in the Philosophical transactions, died in 1804, at the age of 27. A great portion of his leisure time continued still to be devoted to chemical science; and to the Treatise on Pneumatic Medicine by Dr. Beddoes, he contributed a paper on the medical qualities and application of factitious airs. In 1811 the Glasgow Water Company solicited his aid to enable them to convey water across the Clyde. After their great buildings and powerful works had been constructed, it was discovered that on the opposite bank a bed of sand existed, affording a natural filter, and a spring whose admixture gave to the water greatly superior qualities. To change the site of their establishment was out of the question; they therefore thought of pumping the water of the river, after being filtered into a deep well on the one side, through a gigantic conduit pipe laid across it and along its bottom, into their reservoir on the other side; but the soft mud, changeableness, and inequality of its bed seemed to render an expensive under-support of woodwork necessary. Watt formed a flexible main, with ball and socket joints, susceptible of bending itself to all the present and future inflections of the river, -- an idea he derived from the structure of a lobster’s tail, -- and the design was executed with complete success.

Towards the end of his life, Mr. Watt was engaged in the construction of a machine for taking copies of pieces of sculpture. Though he did not live to perfect this ingenious invention, it was so far advanced that several specimens were executed by it, which in joke he distributed among his friends as “the first essays of a young artist just entering his 83d year!” In private life he was universally beloved for his genius, esteemed for his benevolence, and courted for the vast range of his information. His conversation was pleasing, abounding with anecdote, and highly instructive. He had read much, and his memory was not only prodigious, but peculiar. It imbibed all that was of value, and repelled almost instinctively the superfluities that it would have been useless to preserve.

Mr. Watt died at his residence, on his estate at Heathfield, near Soho, August 25, 1819, at the age of eighty-three years and seven months, and was interred in the chancel of the adjoining parochial church of Handsworth, where a splendid Gothic monument was erected to his memory by his son, Mr. James Watt, with an admirable statue in marble by Chantrey, in the centre. A second statue by the same artist, also in marble, has been placed in one of the halls of Glasgow college. In his native town of Greenock homage has been paid to his name and genius by the erection of a statue and public library. In George’s Square, Glasgow, is a colossal statue in bronze upon a granite pedestal; and in Westminster Abbey another, of Carrera marble, by Chantrey and bearing an eloquent inscription by Lord Brougham. A beautiful sandstone statue of Watt in a sitting posture, placed on a granite pedestal, adorns Adam Square, a small recess in the public thoroughfare, in close proximity to the university of Edinburgh.

In the year 1784 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the year following of that of London, and in 1787 he was chosen a corresponding member of the Batavian Society. In 1806 the university of Glasgow conferred upon him the honorary degree of LL.D. In 1808 he was elected a correspondent of the Institute of France, and in 1814 one of the eight foreign associates – the highest honour they could confer – of the Academy of Sciences of the same Institute.

The published works of James Watt are:

Description of a Pneumatic Apparatus; with Directions for procuring Factitious Airs.
Considerations on the Medicinal Use of Factitious Airs, and on the Manner of obtaining them; two parts. 1795, 8vo.
Thoughts on the Constituent Parts of Water and of Dephlogisticated Air; with an Account of some Experiments on that Subject. Phil. Trans. 1784, Abr. xv. 555. On the same. Ib. 569.
On a New Method of preparing a Test Liquor to show the presence of Acids and Alkalis in Chemical Mixtures. Ib. 605

His son, James Watt, born 5th February 1769, inherited a large share of the powerful intellect of his father, and united to great talents and a vigorous understanding, the varied acquirements and literary tastes of a well-cultivated mind. He died 2d June 1848, at his seat, Aston Hall, Warwickshire, in his 80th year. For the last eight years of his life he had comparatively retired from active business, and had devoted much time and attention to the improvement of his extensive estates in the counties of Radnor and Brecon. M. Arago, in his Life of his father, mentions with high commendation the respectful veneration which the son cherished for everything that recalled his memory, or was likely to perpetuate his fame.

WATT, ROBERT, M.D., the compiler of the ‘Bibliotheca Britannica,’ and author of several medical treatises, was the son of a small farmer in the parish of Stewarton, Ayrshire, where he was born in May 1774. His early life was mostly spent in the humble capacity of a ploughboy or farm servant, and at one period he joined his brother in the business of a country wright and cabinetmaker, but this employment not suiting him, he soon quitted it. Being anxious to obtain an academical education, he saved for the purpose as much of his earnings as he could spare, and at his leisure hours applied himself to the acquirement of the Latin and Greek languages. In 1793, at the age of eighteen, he matriculated in Glasgow college, and attended the successive classes in the university till the year 1797. During the summer recesses he supported himself by teaching, first as a private tutor; but, latterly, he took up a school in the parish of Symington, in Ayrshire. His views were at first directed towards the church, but after attending two sessions at the divinity hall, he preferred the medical profession, and in consequence removed to Edinburgh, where he passed through the usual course of medical study.

In 1799, after being licensed by the faculty of physicians and surgeons of Glasgow, Mr. Watt settled as a surgeon in Paisley, and soon attained great popularity in his profession. Finding his practice increasing, he assumed as partner and assistant Mr. James Muir, who had been his fellow-student in Edinburgh. While he resided at Paisley, he composed various works on medicine, but the only one he then published was entitled ‘Cases of Diabetes, Consumption, &c.’ with Observations on the History and Treatment of Disease in General,’ which appeared in 1808. In 1810 he removed to Glasgow, previous to which he had received, from the university of Aberdeen, the degree of M.D., and had been elected a member of the faculty of physicians and surgeons of Glasgow. Besides practicing as a physician, he commenced delivering lectures on the theory and practice of medicine in that city. His lecture-room was numerously attended, and, with a view to the benefit of his pupils, he formed a valuable library of medical books, comprising all the useful and popular works on medicine, with many scarce and high-priced volumes. Of this library he published a Catalogue in 1812, with ‘An Address to Medical Students on the best Method of Prosecuting their Studies.’ He also drew out an index of the various subjects which the volumes embraced, the great utility of which to himself and his students led him to commence the preparation of one upon a more comprehensive scale, intended to comprise all the medical works which had been printed in the British dominions. He subsequently extended the original plan, by including works on law, and latterly works on divinity and miscellaneous subjects, with all foreign publications of merit, and the various Continental editions of the classics; and this was the origin of his celebrated ‘Bibliotheca Britannica.’

In 1813 he published a ‘Treatise on the History, Nature, and Treatment of Chincough,’ to which was subjoined ‘An Inquiry into the relative Mortality of the Principal Diseases of Children, and the numbers who have Died under Ten Years of Age in Glasgow, during the last Thirty Years.’ In 1814 he issued, anonymously, a small volume, entitled ‘Rules of Life, with Reflections on the Manners and Dispositions of Mankind;’ being a number of apophthegms and short sentences, original and selected. He also contributed some interesting papers to the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, and other scientific publications. He was a member of various literary and medical societies, of several of which he was president, and was elected physician to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, and president of the faculty of physicians and surgeons at Glasgow.

In 1817 Dr. Watt was obliged, from bad health, to discontinue altogether his professional pursuits. He had, by this time, brought his great work, ‘The Bibliotheca Britannica,’ to a very considerable state of forwardness; and being anxious for its completion, he retired with his family to a small country house about two miles from Glasgow, engaged several young men as assistants, among whom were William Motherwell the poet, and Mr. Alexander Whitelaw, editor of ‘The Casquet,’ the ‘Republic of Letters,’ and other works, and devoted himself exclusively to the compilation. He was making great progress with the work, when a stomachic disorder, to which he had been long subject, gradually gained upon him, and compelled him to discontinue all personal labour. After an afflicting illness of several months’ duration, he died, March 12, 1819, aged only 45, and was interred in the Glasgow High Church burying-ground.
Dr. Watt married, while in Paisley, Miss Burns, the daughter of a farmer in his father’s neighbourhood, by whom he had nine children. At his death, the publication of the ‘Bibliotheca’ devolved upon his two eldest sons. John, the elder of the two, died in 1821, at the age of twenty; James, his brother, lived to see the work completed, but died in 1829. The printing of the ‘Bibliotheca’ was finished in 1824, in four large quarto volumes. Messrs, Archibald Constable and Co. of Edinburgh entered into engagements for the work, having purchased it for £2,000, but owing to their failure, we are told, the author’s family never derived any benefit from the publication. – Dr. Watt’s works are:

Cases of Diabetes, Consumption, &c., with Observations on the History and Treatment of Diseases in general. Paisley, 1808, 8vo.
Catalogue of Medical Books, for the Use of Students attending Lectures on the Principles and Practice of Medicine; with an Address to Medical Students on the best Method of prosecuting their Studies. Glasg. 1812, 8vo.
Treatise on the History, Nature, and Treatment of Chincough; including a variety of Cases and Dissections. To which is subjoined, An Inquiry into the relative Mortality of the principal Diseases of Children, and the numbers who have died under ten years of age, in Glasgow, during the last thirty years. Glasg. 1813, 8vo.
Rules of Life; with Reflections on the Manners and Dispositions of Mankind. Edin. 1814, 12mo.
Cases of Periodical Jactitation or Chorea. Med. Chir. Trans. v. p. 1. 1814.
Observations on the Influence of Vaccination on other Diseases, and on Population in general. Edin. Med. And Surg. Journ. 1814.
On the Formation of the Rainbow. Thomson’s Ann. Phil. February 1819, p. 131.
Bibliotheca Britannica. First published in 4to Parts. Glasgow and Edinburgh, 1819-24. Completed in 4 vols. large 4to. Glasgow, 1824; 2 vols, being devoted to authors and 2 to subjects.


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