James Watt – Steam-Engine – Hercules of Modern Mythology


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Matthew Boulton and James Watt formed a partnership in 1773 after Boulton took a share in Watts engine as settlement of a debt.  Today they are honoured for their work in superior coinage with them both featuring on the new £50 banknote. 

Below is an excerpt from The Quarterly Review Volume 104 published in 1858 – featuring James Watt.

James Watt – Steam-Engine – Hercules of Modern Mythology

James WattNO country in the world presents such a combination of facilities for manufacture and commerce as England – coal and iron, ships and steam-engines, hardy seamen and ingenious mechanics. With these combined advantages the progress during the present century has been beyond example. In [1784] an American vessel arrived in Liverpool having on board as part of her cargo eight bales of cotton, which were seized by the customhouse officers under the conviction that they could not be the growth of America!

Last year there were imported at Liverpool not less than a million and a half bales of cotton from the United States alone! The first steam-engine used in Manchester was not erected till [1790]; it is now computed that in that city and the district within a radius of ten miles, there are more than fifty thousand boilers, giving a total power of upwards of a million of horses! The engine of Watt has proved the very Hercules of modern mythology, the united steam power of Great Britain being equal, it is estimated, to the manual labour of upwards of four hundred millions of men, or more than double the number of males supposed to inhabit the globe.

Mechanicians and engineers, unlike literary men, are never their own biographers. As an eminent living engineer lately observed, ‘We are so much occupied with doing the thing itself, that we have not the disposition, even if we had the leisure, to write about how it is done. The majority of the persons of this class have moreover risen from obscurity, and the companions among whom they passed their early days were, for the most part, like themselves, self-educated; neither caring to put on record what was worthy to be preserved, nor competent to record it. Hence these heroes of mechanical science passed away, leaving only their work behind them. Hence little is known of Savery, the inventor of the first working atmospheric engine; and it is matter of doubt whether he was the captain of a ship or of a Cornish tin-mine. Nothing of the history of his rival and subsequent partner, Newcomen, is preserved, beyond the fact that he was a blacksmith and a Baptist. Even the distinguished inventors who have lived nearer to our own time have been scarcely more fortunate; for we do not yet possess a single respectable memoir of Arkwright, Crompton, Brindley, or Rennie. Happily, however, the greatest name in the roll of English inventors left behind him a large store of valuable materials, which have been published by his zealous relative Mr. Muirhead, and who has now crowned his long labours by an elaborate ‘Life of Watt,’ the expansion of a former Memoir, which comprises all that we are likely to learn of a man to whom we mainly owe the greatest commercial and social revolution in the entire history of the world.

Excerpt from The Quarterly Review Volume 104 published in 1858.


Further Reading and External Links

BBC News – New £50 banknote – featuring Matthew Boulton and James Watt