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Where the Nineteenth Century meets the Twenty-First.

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Happy Birthday, James Watt!

If the steampunk community is to have any festivals, this would be one* of them. James Watt, inventor of the first efficient steam engine, was born in Scotland on this day in 1736. If not for Watt’s genius, there would have been no “age of steam” for us to celebrate. Many people mistakenly think Watt invented the steam engine. On the contrary, he was the one who transformed it from a curiosity to the backbone of the world economy.

English inventor Thomas Newcomen invented the first usable steam engine in 1712. However, his contraption did a poor job converting heat into mechanical energy. Watt got the idea for his improvements when repairing a Newcomen engine in 1763. He added a separate condenser to allow the steam to condense without losing too much thermal energy. It was the power that the Watt steam engine provided that ended the world’s dependence on human and animal labor, making the Industrial revolution possible. For his contribution, the primary unit of power, yes that Watt, is named after him. He also became quite rich from his inventions.

When you compare Watt to more prolific inventors such as Thomas Edison, Watt’s six patents may seem meager. But what those patents did was to enlarge the scope of the modern world, without which Edison’s creations would not have been possible. Four of these involve the steam engine. One is a method of copying documents by ink transfer (a sort of mimeograph, the forerunner of the Xerox machine.) Watt’s remaining patent involves an improvement on gears, another mechanism beloved by steampunks.

* My other candidate would be Queen Victoria’s birthday, May 24th, since the era was named after her long reign as Britain’s monarch.

Images from Wikimedia Commons:

Portrait of James Watt: James Watt by John Partridge, after Sir William Beechey (1806)

Engraving of Steam Engine: From A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine by Robert Henry Thurston

Photograph of Steam Engine: Author, Eclipse.sx, Creative Commons License

James Watt Memorial College: Author, Dave Souza at Wikipedia

Sun an Planet Gears, From schematic animation drawn by using Xarax Emoscopes

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