Watt's Perfect Engine: Steam and the Age of Invention

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Columbia University Press, 2002 - Business & Economics - 213 pages

As the inventor of the separate-condenser steam engine -- that Promethean symbol of technological innovation and industrial progress -- James Watt has become synonymous with the spirit of invention, while his last name has long been immortalized as the very measurement of power. But contrary to popular belief, Watt did not single-handedly bring about the steam revolution. His "perfect engine" was as much a product of late-nineteenth-century Britain as it was of the inventor's imagination.

As one of the greatest technological developments in human history, the steam engine was a major progenitor of the Industrial Revolution, but it was also symptomatic of its many problems. Armed with a patent on the separate-condenser principle and many influential political connections, Watt and his business partner Matthew Boulton fought to maintain a twenty-five-year monopoly on steam power that stifled innovation and ruthlessly crushed competition. After tinkering with boiling kettles and struggling with leaky cylinders for years without success, Watt would eventually amass a fortune and hold sway over an industry. But, as Ben Marsden shows, he owed his astonishing rise as much to espionage and political maneuvering as to his own creativity and determination.

This is a tale of science and technology in tandem, of factory show-spaces and international espionage, of bankruptcy and brain drains, lobbying and legislation, and patents and pirates. It reveals how James Watt -- warts and all -- became an icon fit for an age of industry and invention.

 

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Contents

Whats Watt?
1
Breeding an Inventor
9
Making an Instrumentmaker
13
The Business of Natural Philosophy
16
Rediscovering Steam
27
Learning About the Newcomen Engine
34
Reinventing Steam
43
Watts Perfectible Engine
56
Taking the Measure of Horsepower
128
Southerns Steam Indicator
132
Circumnavigating Watt Pirates and Patents
137
Manufacturing and Marketing the Business of the Steam Engine
147
Spinning Steam
148
Global Steam
151
My dear philosophe James Watt Man of Science
159
Patenting Nature? Watt and the Water Controversy
160

Watts Temperamental Engine
64
An Experiment in Engineering
69
Patenting Principles
78
From Roebuck to Boulton
81
Learning Industry
87
New Life for Old Patents
94
A County of Fire Engines
100
Doubling Rotating Expanding and Indicating
107
the Hunt for a Rotative Engine
109
Circling Around Pickard
112
Making a Doubleacting Engine
115
Watts Parallel Motion
117
Not Making a Highpressure Expansive Engine
120
the Centrifugal Governor
126
James Watt Thomas Beddoes and Factitious Airs
167
The Appliance of Science or the Sciences of the Steam Engine
170
The Progeny of Steam Planes Trains and Automobiles?
173
Driving Steam
176
Superseding Steam
180
Monuments and Myths Reimagining Watt
183
Puffing Jamie
184
Solitary or Social?
187
the Topographical Watt
190
the Monumental Watt
193
Watt With or Without Warts?
199
Glossary
203
Bibliography
207
Copyright

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About the author (2002)

Ben Marsden is a lecturer in cultural history and the history of science at the University of Aberdeen.

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