James Watt Patents Improvements to the Steam Engine: 1769

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Editor: Jennifer Stock
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview; Event overview
Length: 1,391 words
Lexile Measure: 1150L

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Key Facts

Global Context


In the 1760s, the Boers cross the Orange River to begin settling the interior of southern Africa, expanding European influence in Africa.

Asia and Oceania

Beginning in 1768, British captain James Cook (1728–1779) explores the Pacific, including New Zealand and Australia.

Central and South America

Rio de Janeiro becomes the capital of colonial Brazil in 1763.


In 1769 English inventor Richard Arkwright (1732–1792) revolutionizes clothes manufacturing with the invention of a spinning frame that turns cotton into thread.

Middle East

The Zand Dynasty of Persia, under the leadership of Karim Khan (died 1779), begins in 1750.

North America

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) invents the lightning conductor in 1752.

Key Figures

Business Leaders

Matthew Boulton (1728–1809), English manufacturer and business owner.

John Roebuck (1718–1794), English manufacturer and business owner.

Scientists and Inventors

Thomas Newcomen (1664–1729), English inventor.

Thomas Savery (c. 1650–1715), English inventor.

James Watt (1736–1819), Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer.


People have used tools since Neolithic times for all manner of purposes, including hunting, self-defense, agriculture, and art. For thousands of years, these tools were human-powered; that is, a human had to put the necessary muscle behind them. Around 4000 bce humans learned to domesticate certain animals, such as oxen, to pull ploughs and sleds. Horses were domesticated soon thereafter, as were camels and elephants. Around 3500 bce humans invented the wheel, used to create pottery, and within the next two or three hundred years wheels were used on chariots.

During the eighteenth century ce, the human-based and animal-based system of agriculture, labor, and manufacturing began to change during a time of rapid technological innovation known as the Industrial Revolution (1750–1850). Machines, not people and animals, began accomplishing more of the arduous and dangerous work that for millennia before had been accomplished more slowly by humans and yoked animals. The Industrial Revolution had its beginning in England, where several inventors made advances in technology that changed the nature and pace of work and production forever.

One of the most important inventions to the Industrial Revolution was the invention of the steam engine. The first model was patented in 1698 by English inventor and merchant Thomas Savery (c. 1650–1715). Savery had created a machine to solve a common mining problem: how to efficiently remove the water that pooled at the lowest parts of the mine, which prevented miners from accessing the coal. Called “The Miners Friend,” the machine heated water in a boiler, which in turn produced steam that was then routed through pipes to a receptacle. The receptacle was connected to a suction pipe that extended down to the water that needed to be removed. Once the receptacle was filled with steam, it was sprayed with cold water; the steam would condense as a result, creating a vacuum that changed the atmospheric pressure within the suction tube, forcing the water up the suction pipe. The machine’s dependency on internal pressure required all the piping to be completely sealed. Thus, the efficiency of Savery’s invention was hampered by the poor quality of metal fittings of this time period, which made the seals difficult to maintain.

Another English inventor, Thomas Newcomen (1664–1729), made significant improvements to Savery’s design in the next decade. Instead of using an open fire to heat the boiler, Newcomen used a sealed boiler above which a piston cylinder connected to a pump. A weighted rod on the pump raised the piston to the top of the cylinder; the cylinder filled with steam from the boiler and was then sprayed with cold water, creating a vacuum that drew the piston downward, completing a pump cycle. Each pump cycle would draw water upward into the bottom of the pump. The first known working model of Newcomen’s version was demonstrated in 1712.

Like Savery’s model, the Newcomen model also had technical flaws. The piston cylinder had to be cooled for every cycle and then reheated, requiring tremendous amounts of fuel to maintain the steam needed for operation. Since the machine was designed to operate in coal mines, where fuel was abundant, this did not pose a problem to its adoption in that industry. It did, however, prevent its widespread use in other industries.

The Event

James Watt (1736–1819) was a mathematical instrument maker at the university in Glasgow, Scotland, in the mid-eighteenth century. Around 1763, the university asked him to repair its model of Newcomen’s engine. Although the design of the engine was innovative, Watt noticed that it also was highly inefficient. As the water passed through the engine, the engine lost enormous amounts of steam, wasting a valuable resource that could be converted to energy.

Watt set about identifying the problems with the existing steam engine and seeking solutions for them. He saw one of the primary problems was that the steam cycle and the condensing cycle occurred in the same cylinder. This also placed a significant amount of repetitive stress on the cylinder. Watt separated the two functions by designing a separate cylinder for the condensation process; steam from the first cylinder was guided to the second cylinder, where condensation would take place. This would allow the hot cylinder to remain hot, and the cold cylinder to remain cold, greatly increasing the thermal efficiency of the machine and thereby requiring less fuel to run. In 1769 Watt received a patent for his improvements.

Watt had initially partnered with businessman John Roebuck (1718–1794) to finance the development of the steam engine in 1765. When Roebuck’s business failed, Watt was forced to seek a new partner. He found one in Matthew Boulton (1728–1809), the owner of a silver-stamping business in Birmingham, England. Watt and Boulton became business partners in 1773 and opened the Soho Foundry in Birmingham to construct and sell the new steam engine. The business sold its first two steam engines in 1775; the success of the machines soon drew in many more orders.

From 1781 to 1788, Watt continued to improve on his design. His development of the double-acting piston, in which the machine could move the piston both forward and backward and forward, doubled the machine’s capacity for work. A further refinement allowed the engine to power movement in any direction—not just up and down—turning it into a rotary engine. The engine’s capacity to power any repetitive action expanded the possibilities for its use to any industry. Since the machine would replace animal power, Watt developed the unit of measurement known as the horsepower (hp) to describe the engine’s strength. One unit of horsepower was equivalent to 33,000 pounds lifted one foot high per minute, which continues to be a standard measurement in the United States and Great Britain.

Boulton & Watt soon became one of the largest engineering firms in the country, due largely to the growing demand for steam engines. The engine moved from its use in the mining industry to powering machines in paper, flour, and iron mills. It made one of its biggest impacts in the textile industry.

At this time, Great Britain was a world leader in the cottage textile industry, in which people wove wool and cotton by hand in their homes. With the advent of the steam engine, the cottage industry gave way to factories that could produce cotton and other textiles far more efficiently. Watt’s improvements to the steam engine improved productivity, which in turn decreased the cost of goods. The economy prospered. Steam also powered locomotives, linking the factories to cities and ports, facilitating trade and lowering transportation costs.

Global Effect

The steam engine was an early precursor to inventions that occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Combined, the impact revolutionized industry. Great Britain’s factory system was replicated in other countries, first in western Europe and then in places farther afield. Western Europe prospered from the increase in trade.

Other inventors and engineers found new uses for the steam engine and improved on Watt’s inventions. In the United States, Robert Fulton (1765–1815) used the steam engine to power the world’s first commercial steamboats, which improved transportation on North American waterways. Later, steam-powered battleships and other military advances helped industrial nations maintain authority and dominance on the open sea.

Industrialization changed the nature of communities. Factories attracted workers to cities, giving rise to now crowded urban centers. The population of Europe soared. Early factories were dingy and dangerous places; the industrial work was gruelling for laborers. Industrialization also had an impact on politics, as it gave rise to increasingly capitalist societies in which a few industrialists controlled immense wealth.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|BGLOUI333608401