James Watt

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For the Reagan Administration official, see James G. Watt.
Watt in 1792

James Watt (19 January 173625 August 1819) was a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer whose improvements to the Newcomen steam engine were fundamental to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in both the Kingdom of Great Britain and the world.


  • I can think of nothing else than this machine.
    • in a letter to a friend, Dr. Lind, April 29, 1765.
  • It is not worth my while to manufacture in three countries only; but I can find it very worthwhile to make it for the whole world.
    • Attributed to James Watt in: Joel Mokyr, The lever of riches: Technological creativity and economic progress. Oxford University Press, 1992. p, 245

"Notes on Professor Robison's Dissertation on Steam-engines" (1769)[edit]

"Notes on Professor Robison's Dissertation on Steam-engines" (1769) from Robison's Essays on Various Subjects of Mechanical Philosophy (1822) ed. David Brewster Vol. 2, p. 347

Quotes about James Watt[edit]

  • These foundations decisively changed incentives for people and impelled the engines of prosperity, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution. First and foremost, the Industrial Revolution depended on major technological advances exploiting the knowledge base that had accumulated in Europe during the past centuries. It was a radical break from the past, made possible by scientific inquiry and the talents of a number of unique individuals. The full force of this revolution came from the market that created profitable opportunities for technologies to be developed and applied. It was the inclusive nature of markets that allowed people to allocate their talents to the right lines of business. It also relied on education and skills, for it was the relatively high levels of education, at least by the standards of the time, that enabled the emergence of entrepreneurs with the vision to employ new technologies for their businesses and to find workers with the skills to use them. It is not a coincidence that the Industrial Revolution started in England a few decades following the Glorious Revolution. The great inventors such as James Watt (perfecter of the steam engine), Richard Trevithick (the builder of the first steam locomotive), Richard Arkwright (the inventor of the spinning frame), and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (the creator of several revolutionary steamships) were able to take up the economic opportunities generated by their ideas, were confident that their property rights would be respected, and had access to markets where their innovations could be profitably sold and used.
    • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Poverty, and Prosperity (2012)
  • Almost everybody is sure... that it is proceeding with unprecedented speed; and... that its effects will be more radical than anything that has gone before. Wrong, and wrong again. Both in its speed and its impact, the information revolution uncannily resembles its two predecessors... The first industrial revolution, triggered by James Watt's improved steam engine in the mid-1770s... did not produce many social and economic changes until the invention of the railroad in 1829... Similarly, the invention of the computer in the mid-1940s... it was not until 40 years later, with the spread of the Internet in the 1990s, that the information revolution began to bring about big economic and social changes... the same emergence of the “super-rich” of their day, characterized both the first and the second industrial revolutions... These parallels are close and striking enough to make it almost certain that, as in the earlier industrial revolutions, the main effects of the information revolution on the next society still lie ahead.
  • In science its main worth is temporary, as a stepping-stone to something beyond. Even the Principia, as Newton, with characteristic modesty entitled his great work, is truly but the beginning of a natural philosophy, and no more an ultimate work than Watt's steam-engine, or Arkwright's spinning-machine.
    • Julius Charles Hare, ‎Augustus William Hare, ‎Edward Hayes Plumptre (1871). Guesses at Truth. p. 326
  • If the Steam Engine be the most powerful instrument in the hands of man, to alter the face of the physical world, it operates, at the same time, as a powerful moral lever in forwarding the great cause of civilization. ...If ...we are now met to consider of placing a monument to the memory of Mr. Watt beside the monuments of those who fell in the splendid victories of the last war, let it not be said that there is no connexion between the services of this modest and unobtrusive benefactor of his country, and the triumphs of the heroes which those monuments are destined to commemorate. ...It has been often said, that many of the great discoveries in science are due to accident; but it was well remarked by [Humphry Davy]... that this cannot be the case with the principal discovery of Mr. Watt. ... Again, it has frequently happened that those philosophers, who have made brilliant and useful discoveries... have only been able to turn their discoveries to the purpose of averting evils threatening, and often destroying, the precarious tenure of human existence. Thus Franklin disarmed the thunderbolt, and conducted it innocuous through our buildings, and close to our fire-sides—thus Jenner stripped a loathsome and destructive disease of its virulence, and rendered it harmless of devastation—thus [Davy]... sent the safety lamp into our mines to save... their useful inhabitants from the awful explosion of the fire damp. But the discovery of Mr. Watt went further: he subdued and regulated the most terrific power in the universe,—that power which, by the joint operation of pressure and heat, probably produces those tremendous convulsions of the earth, which in a moment subvert whole cities, and almost change the face of the inhabited globe. This apparently ungovernable power Mr. Watt reduced to a state of such perfect organization and discipline... that it may now be safely manœuvred and brought into irresistible action—irresistible, but still regulated, measured, and ascertained—or lulled into the most complete and secure repose, at the will of man, and under the guidance of his feeble hand. Thus one man directs it into the bowels of the earth, to tear asunder its very elements, and bring to light its hidden treasures; another places it upon the surface of the waters, to control the winds of heaven, to stem the tides, to check the currents, and defy the waves of the ocean; a third, perhaps and a fourth, are destined to apply this mighty power to other purposes, still unthought of and unsuspected, but leading to consequences, possibly not less important than those which it has already produced. ... those benefits, conferred by Mr. Watt on the whole civilized world, have been most experienced by his own country, which owes a tribute of national gratitude to a man, who has thus honoured her by his genius, and promoted her well being by his discoveries.

External links[edit]

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