James Watt and Steam Power (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: James Watt and Steam Power

Q1: Describe the different methods that mine-owners used to remove water from their mines in the 18th century. Explain why the mine-owners were always looking for new methods to remove this water.

A1: Mine-owners used several different methods to remove water from their mines in the first half of the 18th century. Methods included: (i) pumps worked by windmills; (ii) teams of men and animals carrying buckets; (iii) Thomas Savery's pumping machine. In the second half of the 18th century the steam-engines invented by Thomas Newcomen and James Watt became the main way water was removed from mines. Mine-owners were always looking for cheaper and more effective ways of removing water from their mines.

Q2: Describe what is taking place in source 7.

A2: The painting shows a Newcomen steam-engine being used in a coal-mine, a weighbridge and a smoking chimney. In the middle of the picture, a man leads two donkeys containing baskets of coal. On the left another man pushes a wheelbarrow of coal. Men can be seen loading coal into baskets and wagons for transport. Two horses are to his right, while another two - attached to a coal filled wagon - graze behind.

Q3: What was the main form of power used to drive textile machines in the years: (i) 1775-1785; (ii) 1795-1805?

A3: (i) water-power; (ii) steam-power.

Q4: Why did the British government pass an act of Parliament on Watt's steam-engine in 1775 (source 5)? Why did some people disagree with this policy.

A4: The British government passed an Act of Parliament on the steam-engine in 1775 in an attempt to make sure Watt was rewarded for his invention. The government was aware that Watt's steam-engine would provide considerable benefit for British manufacturers. In time this would mean higher tax revenue for the government. The government hoped that when people realised that large profits could be made from successful inventions this would inspire others to invent new machines.

Some people believed that the government was wrong to give Watt a 25 year monopoly of producing steam-engines. As Edward Baines points out in source 3, this stopped other inventors from improving Watt's steam-engine. Baines therefore believed that if the 1775 Act had not been passed the textile industry would have grown even faster during the last quarter of the 18th century.

Q5: Study source 13. Why were handloom weavers unhappy when they found out about Watt's steam-engine?

A5: The picture shows that Watt's steam-engine could power several machines at the same time. The output of these machines were far greater than those achieved by weavers using a handloom. Handloom weavers realised that with the invention of Watt's steam-engine it was just a matter of time before they would be unable to sell their cloth. As factory owners preferred to employ women and children to work their machines, the handloom weavers faced the prospect of falling wages and an increase in unemployment.

Q6: Give as many reasons as you can why James Watt became a very rich man.

A6: James Watt became a rich man because he invented a successful steam-engine. After Parliament passed an act that prevented others from producing similar machines, Watt had a virtual monopoly over the production of these machines. This meant that Watt did not have to worry about other companies undercutting his prices. Watt's decision to charge a premium based on the profits obtained by companies using his steam-engine also helped him to become rich. Source 14 claims that when he died in 1819 he left over £60,000 (£81,000,000 in today's money).

Q7: Study source 15. How does this account of the invention of the steam engine differ from those in history textbooks produced in Britain? What does it tell you about the problems of using your own country's textbooks?

A7: British textbooks rarely mention Ivan Polsunov's steam-engine. British history textbooks tend to concentrate on British inventions. The same is true of other countries. Sometimes this nationalist approach results in history books that are inaccurate. For example, many history textbooks claim that in 1797 Edward Jenner was the first person to develop a vaccine that protected people from smallpox. In fact, the Chinese had developed a successful vaccine against smallpox in the early 1600s.