A twelve-year flash of genius

Last week the Observer had an article celebrating the 250th anniversary of James Watt’s invention of the separate condenser steam engine, James Watt and the sabbath stroll that created the industrial revolution, that manages to perpetuate a whole series of myths about the history of science and technology despite being based on genuine historical facts. The title alone made not only myself, but also numerous others, cringe for two different reasons the second of which, concerning the Industrial Revolution, I will elucidate later. First of all I shall analyse a very crass form of the flash of genius myth that forms the central theme of the article.

Portrait of James Watt (1736–1819) by Carl Frederik von Breda Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of James Watt (1736–1819)
by Carl Frederik von Breda
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So what is the flash of genius that Robin McKie, Science Editor of The Observe, presents to us here? Let him tell us in his own words:

In 1765, Watt – then an instrument-maker based at Glasgow University – was working on a Newcomen pump, a state-of-the-art device in which steam pushed a piston through a cylinder. Water was then sprayed into the cylinder, cooling it and causing the steam to condense, creating a vacuum behind the piston that sucked it back into its original position. More steam was pumped in and the piston was pushed forward again. It was a very powerful process but also a very inefficient one. Constantly heating and then cooling the engine’s huge cylinder required huge amounts of heat and coal. Steam engines like these had only limited usefulness. Then Watt set off on his walk. When he was halfway across the green, the idea of a separate condenser came into his mind. Such a device would, he realised, create a vacuum that would help suck in the engine’s piston but still allow its main cylinder to operate at a constant temperature.

What is the source for this astounding story? In fact it is to be found in Watt’s own reminiscences. Let us examine the original:

I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon. I had entered the Green by the gate at the foot of Charlotte Street – had passed the old washing-house. I was thinking about the engine at the time and had gone as far as the Herd’s house when the idea came into my mind, that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication was made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it, and might there condensed without cooling the cylinder … I had not walked further than the Golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.[1]

So there we have it, a genuine example of the decried and much derided by grumpy old historians of science and technology, such as myself, flash of genius. It exists or does it? What McKie neglects to mention but which Uglow supplies in great detail is the long, complex and convoluted back-story that led up to this insight and the struggles that followed it.

In 1757, a full eight years before that Sabbath stroll, James Watt was established in Glasgow as a maker and repairer of scientific and musical instruments, a trade that he had travelled to London to learn. He had been approached by John Robinson, who had the visionary idea of carriages driven by steam-power and who wanted Watt to build him a model of one. At this point in his life Watt admits he was totally ignorant on the subject but intrigued by Robinson’s idea he plunged into a study of all he could find concerning the work of those early steam pioneers Papin, Savery, and Newcomen after his first attempt to construct a steam-engine had failed dismally. At this point in his life Watt had never actually seen a working steam engine but fate intervened. In the summer of 1757 Watt was appointed Mathematical Instrument Maker at the University of Glasgow. Over the years Watt continued his researches into steam power, which I won’t go into detail here, and in 1760 Watt’s friend Professor Anderson commissioned Watt to bring the University’s defective demonstration model Newcomen steam-engine into working order. It was the chronic inefficiency of this machine that spurred Watt into trying to develop a better more efficient steam-engine. Efforts that would finally lead to his ‘spontaneous’ revelation on that Sabbath afternoon in 1765!

What we have here is in no way a flash of genius but the end result of eight full years of hard work, a case of the solution to a problem finally appearing in “the prepared mind,” to quote Louis Pasteur.

Watt’s insight was however not really the solution to his problem but the outline of a path that would lead him to that solution. McKie hints at this with the half sentence, “Four years later, he patented the condenser…” McKie had previous informed us the Watt had very quickly made a model of his idea…

Watt's first model condenser. Science Museum London Source Wikimedia Commons

Watt’s first model condenser. Science Museum London
Source Wikimedia Commons

…but what he doesn’t tell us is that turning that model into a real functioning steam-engine turned out to be fraught with problem that would occupy all of Watt’s ingenuity for the next four years and therefor the gap between insight and patent. What seemed at first to be a moment in time that revolutionised the steam engine has now turned into twelve years of research, experimentation and very hard work. Not quite the picture that McKie presents us with in his article. In fact it would 1776 before Watt’s endeavours would finally flower in the installation of the first Boulton-Watt steam-engine almost twenty years after he first began his investigations in steam power. Not quite the instant revolution McKie seems to want to propagate.

McKie’s article contains an equally problematic myth in the second half of the sentence quoted in the previous paragraph, “…and triggered the industrial revolution”. We have now arrived at the second myth contained in the article’s title.

There is a cosy little myth much loved in Britain that the Industrial Revolution equals steam power and steam power equals James Watt therefore James Watt equals the Industrial Revolutions. In a slightly more sophisticated form this is what McKie is serving up here. In whatever form it gets served up, it is of course, viewed historically, total rubbish. I’m not going to produce a complete historical analysis of the contributory factors that formed the Industrial Revolution in a blog post but it suffices to state that they were many and varied forming a complex matrix of forces driving this revolution onwards. Watt’s improvements to the steam-engine constitute only one of those factors. In fact the Industrial Revolution was in full swing well before Boulton & Watt brought their first steam-engine onto the market. If it hadn’t been then Watt might never have found the financial and technical help that he needed to realise his ‘flash of genius’.

One central aspect of the Industrial Revolution was a radical new approach to production. Home piecework and small-scale artisanal workshops were replaced by large-scale central manufactories organised on mass production schemes. Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory constructed in 1761 was one of the leaders of this movement.

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773 Source: Wikimedia Commons

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was Boulton, who required more power to drive his manufactory, who provided the finance and the engineering expertise Watt needed to finally produce his improved steam-engine. At best it can be confidently claimed that the Boulton & Watt steam-engine accelerated the progress of the Industrial Revolution; it didn’t create it as McKie claims.

Matthew Boulton by Carl Frederik von Breda Source: Wikimedia Commos

Matthew Boulton by Carl Frederik von Breda
Source: Wikimedia Commos

Even worse, as has been pointed out by various people on the Internet and in letters replying to McKie’s article, Boulton & Watt both through their market dominance and through their skilful legal manipulation of deliberately vaguely worded patents prevented or delayed several important developments in the Industrial Revolution, functioning as a brake to progress rather than a promoter. The most famous example was Watt’s opposition to the high-pressure steam-engine, ironically necessary in order to power the steam carriages that triggered Watt’s initial interest in steam power, which almost certainly set back the introduction of the railways by several decades.

What we have here is a classical example of a journalist reducing complex historical context to over simplified journalese, thereby creating or perpetuating myths rather than transmitting useful historical information.

[1] Recounted by JW in 1817 to the Glasgow engineer Robert Hunt: Reminiscences of James Watt, Transactions of Glasgow Archaeological Society, 1859 in Jenny Uglow The Lunar Men, faber and faber, 2002, PB, p. 101


Filed under History of Technology, Myths of Science

12 responses to “A twelve-year flash of genius

  1. You mention to the patent fights that surrounded the development of the Watt engine. Getting credit and profit from his invention distinguishes Watt from many other inventors of the age. Many others were not so lucky because they weren’t surrounded by canny and well connected friends as Watt was—he belonged to the circle that formed around Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood, Charles Darwin’s two grandfathers. Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men, which you cite, is about the support and inspiration these folks gave one another. The book provides excellent evidence that the Great Men theory of history makes a lot more sense than the Great Man theory.

    Speaking of credit where credit is due, Uglow also makes it clear that the eventual success of the Watt engine depended on the anonymous contributions of skilled workmen who figured out how to build the damn thing, no mean feat in an era when you couldn’t just order the parts from Amazon. As one of my old bosses used to say, ideas are a dime a dozen. Making something of them is almost always a communal operation.

  2. I am currently reviewing John Gray, and have an important history of science question to address in the review. If you possibly have the time to address this briefly, could you drop me a note

    • My email address is at the top of the page under “Contact” if you wish to get in touch with me.

      • gcallah

        The reason I posted my email address here is that the last time I sent a question like I have now to that email address, I never received a response. But I will try again.

  3. araybold

    This reminded me of a piece by Woody Allen, in which he imagined the development of the sandwich as the culmination of a lifetime’s efforts by an obsessed and misunderstood inventor. It turns out that Allen titled it ‘Yes, But Can the Steam Engine do This?’ (collected in ‘Getting Even’; originally in the New Yorker?) It can be found on the web, though whether it is reproduced with permission, I cannot say.

  4. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #50 | Whewell's Ghost

  5. Pingback: 2 – James Watt: A Twelve-Year Flash of Genius | Offer Your

  6. Matt Lawless

    Those interested further maybe interested tp read :

    Robert Scott Burn’s “The history of the steam engine” (1857)


    Available in Google Play for no fee

  7. Pingback: What Is Watt? It Is the Innovation That Counts. : Stephen E. Arnold @ Beyond Search

  8. Pingback: Bookmarks for July 15th through July 16th | Chris's Digital Detritus

  9. I really love this. Currently engaged with the Watt Bicentenary steering group and the Incorporation of Hammermen of Glasgow looking at ways to celebrate Watt’s many interesting facets, not least of which is the way hagiography surrounded him in life and ever after.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s