James Watt Biography

(Inventor of Steam Engine)

Birthday: January 19, 1736 (Capricorn)

Born In: Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland

James Watt was a Scottish engineer and instrument maker, who is known for his invention of the first modern steam engine. He modified the Newcomen steam engine to increase its efficiency through his creative thinking and scientific knowledge of instrument design. He learned writing, arithmetic and geometry in his childhood along with the craft of instrument making, which he later pursued as a career to achieve great heights. One of his greatest strengths was that he was a quick learner, which transformed him from an apprentice to a skilled professional in very less time as compared to other people. He faced a lot of poverty as he was vastly in debt and was not allowed to work as a professional initially. Eventually, he became a successful and famous inventor through some of his finest works including the steam engine, rotary engine and copying system. His vast knowledge of mechanical engineering, leading the way for the future generations, also symbolized his mark in history as one of the most celebrated scientists of all time. He also developed the concept of ‘Horsepower’ and the S.I. unit of power, Watt, is named after him. He was married twice and had seven children, but unfortunately only one of his children lived beyond the age of 30.
Quick Facts

Died At Age: 83


Spouse/Ex-: Ann Macgregor (1777-1819), Margaret Miller (1764–1772)

Inventors Scientists

Died on: August 25, 1819

place of death: Birmingham, England

discoveries/inventions: Steam Engine, Concept Of Horsepower

Childhood & Early Life
James was born on 19 January, 1736 in Greenock, Renfrewshire to Agnes Muirhead, a well educated women and her husband, James Watt, who was a shipwright and contractor with a well established business. He had a brother, John, who died at an early age.
He was not a healthy child and suffered from toothaches and migraines in his childhood. Due to this medical condition, he was unable to attend school regularly and was mostly taught at home by his parents.
His mother taught him reading while his father taught him arithmetic and writing. He loved to operate on a small toolkit in his father’s workshop, assembling different objects for designing various models. In this way, he was attracted to the skill of crafting instruments.
During his teenage years his father lost his inheritance due to commercial disasters and his mother died. In the mean time, he decided to pursue a career in mathematical instrument making.
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In 1754, he went to Glasgow and got acquainted with Robert Dick through one of his relatives working at Glasgow University. Robert encouraged him to master the skill of instrument making by working as an apprentice in London.
In 1755, he met John Morgan, an instrument maker who agreed to teach him the art of instrument making with a little pay. He worked for long hours continuously in the cold workshop, due to which his health declined. His abilities surpassed John’s other apprentices and he was able to complete his tenure in one year, which normally extended up to seven years.
After his training, he returned to Glasgow in 1756 to start his own business of mathematical instrument making, but faced opposition from local tradesmen as he was an outsider to them after being trained in London. They shunned his credentials and training.
In 1757, with the help of his friends at the Glasgow University he opened a shop in the university campus and was appointed as the “Mathematical Instrument Maker to the University”. He was made in-charge of the new astronomical instruments which required special attention.
In 1758, while he used to study and repair scientific instruments at the university, he became friends with some of its professors. In addition to that he formed a partnership with John Craig, a businessman who helped him to open a shop in Glasgow and sell musical instruments.
In 1763, the most crucial moment of his life arrived, when a professor brought his attention to a Newcomen steam engine that was not working properly. This challenged his creativity and scientific knowledge, and he set upon finding a solution for it through his instrument making skills.
After a study of two years, in 1765 he devised a unique way to modify the engine to improve its working which led to the invention of the steam engine. To this day, it is considered as one of the greatest achievements of all times.
Over the years he improved the working of steam engine through his revolutionary ideas and inventive thinking. He also developed a copying machine and patented his discoveries with the help of his partner Matthew Boulton, an industrialist and a visionary.
Major Works
From 1763 to 1765, he investigated the Newcomen engine and found loopholes in it, which were needed to be rectified for its proper working. He suggested a separate condenser connected with the engine, his first and greatest invention, where the steam from the engine would be collected for condensation. It would prevent the loss of latent heat and increase its working efficiency.
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In 1768, he entered into a partnership with John Roebuck, who urged him to make a steam engine which he did. The following year Watt took out the famous patent for “A New Invented Method of Lessening the Consumption of Steam and Fuel in Fire Engines.”
From 1780 to 1790, he invented numerous techniques to improve the working of steam engine and patented them. This includes rotary motion, double acting engine, parallel motion and invention of pressure gauge.
Awards & Achievements
In 1784, he was elected as a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
In 1787, he was elected as a member of the Batavian Society for Experimental Philosophy in Rotterdam.
In 1806, he was conferred the honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Glasgow.
In 1960, the 11th General Conference on Weights and Measures incorporated ‘watt’ as the unit of power in International System of Units.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1764, he married his cousin Margaret Miller, with whom he had five children, but only one of them lived beyond the age of 30. His wife died in childbirth in 1772.
In 1777, he was remarried to Ann Macgregor, daughter of a Glasgow dye-maker. They had two children, who also died at young ages..
After his retirement in 1800, he traveled to France and Germany with his second wife. He also revisited his hometown of Greenock in 1816.
He died on 25 August, 1819 at his house in England, at the age of 83.
He once quoted that “he would rather face a loaded cannon than settle an account or make a bargain”, which establishes the fact that he was not a businessman, but an inventor.
This great inventor’s name is marked on every light bulb around the world.
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