James Watt and Steam Power (Classroom Activity)

One of the major problems of mining for coal, iron, lead and tin in the 17th and 18th centuries was flooding. Miners used several different methods to solve this problem. These included pumps worked by windmills and teams of men and animals carrying endless buckets of water.

None of these methods was very satisfactory and several people tried to invent a machine that would solve the problem. In 1698 Thomas Savery developed a machine to pump water out of the mines. However, the engine could not raise water from very deep mines. Another disadvantage was its tendency to cause explosions.

After ten years of experimentation, Thomas Newcomen, a Dartmouth blacksmith, developed a steam-atmospheric engine that was an improvement on Savery's pump. Atmospheric pressure moved the piston down the cylinder and steam from the boiler caused the piston to rise. A vacuum was created with the interaction of cold water and hot steam, and the piston was in full operation moving the counterweights up and down. However, Newcomen's engine was very expensive to use as it needed a lot of coal to make it work.

In 1763, James Watt, an instrument maker from Greenock, Scotland, was asked to repair one of Thomas Newcomen's steam-engines. After studying the machine, Watt became convinced he could develop a steam-engine that was far more efficient and powerful than the one invented by Newcomen.

Watt realised that it would take him some time to develop this new steam-engine. He was not a wealthy man so he had to seek a partner with money. John Roebuck, the owner of a Scottish iron-works, agreed to provide financial backing for Watt's project. When Roebuck went bankrupt in 1773, Watt took his ideas to Matthew Boulton, a successful businessman from Birmingham.

For the next eleven years Boulton's factory produced and sold Watt's steam-engine to the mining industry. Watt's machine was very popular because it was four times more powerful than Newcomen's engine.

Watt continued to experiment, and in 1781 he produced a rotary-motion steam engine. Whereas his earlier engine, with its up-and-down pumping 'action, was ideal for draining mines, this new steam engine could be used to drive many different kinds of machinery.

Richard Arkwright was quick to see the importance of this new invention, and in 1783 he began using Watt's steam-engine in his textile factories. Others followed his lead, and by 1800 there were over 500 of Watt's machines in Britain's mines and factories.

Watt charged his customers a premium for using his steam-engines. To justify this he compared his machine to a horse. Watt calculated that a horse exerted a pull of 1801b. Therefore, when he made a machine, he described its power in relation to a horse, i.e. a "20 horse-power engine". Watt worked out how much each company saved by using his machine rather than a team of horses. The company then had to pay him one third of this figure every year, for the next twenty five years.

Primary Sources

(Source 1) James Watt by John Partridge (c. 1790)
(Source 1) James Watt by John Partridge (c. 1790)


(Source 2) Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men (2002)

Although no formal partnership agreement was drawn up, for his two-thirds share, Boulton agreed to bear all the costs of getting patents, carrying out experiments, providing stock, managing the workmen and making deals. But now that they were working together, he could see that they needed to invest time as well as capital: Watt's patent was good for only eight more years and that might not be long enough. If their investment was to pay off they needed a good spell free from competition to get the engineering right. Going straight for his goal, as always, Boulton set about extending the period of protection. Instead of applying for a new patent he used his well-honed lobbying skills to push a Private Bill through Parliament to extend the current patent for twenty-five years.

(Source 3) Edward Baines, History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (1835)

The patent of 1769 did not include all Watt's improvements. He connected himself in 1775 with Mr Boulton, of Soho, Birmingham, a gentleman of wealth, enterprise, and mechanical talent; and, having made still further improvements in the steam engine, an Act of Parliament was passed the same year, vesting in him "the sole use and property of certain steam-engines of his invention, throughout the majesty's dominions," for the extraordinary term of twenty-five years... This prevented others from making steam-engines which contained improvements of their own.

(Source 4) A Newcomen steam-engine being used in about 1780.
(Source 4) A Newcomen steam-engine being used in about 1780.


(Source 5) In 1775 the British government explained why it had passed an act that stopped companies for the next twenty-five years from producing steam-engines that were similar to the one made by James Watt.

James Watt has spent a great part of his fortune in making experiments to improve steam-engines... By producing mechanical power at less expense, and in more convenient forms, his engines may be of great use in many great manufactures.

(Source 6) Edmund Kennedy, The Rise and Progress of the Cotton Trade (1795)

About this time (1790) Mr. Watt's steam-engine began to be understood and introduced into this part of England, and it was applied to the turning of spinning machines... In consequence of this, waterfalls became of less value; and, instead of carrying the people to the power, it was found preferable to place the power among the people, wherever it was most wanted.

(Source 7) A Newcomen steam-engine being used in a coal-mine (1790)
(Source 7) A Newcomen steam-engine being used in a coal-mine (1790)

(Source 8) John Richard Green, The History of the English People (1874)

James Watt in 1765 transformed the Steam-Engine from a toy into the most wonderful instrument which human industry has ever had at its command... the steam engine raised Britain into the greatest manufacturing country that the world has seen.

(Source 9) Richard Guest, A History of the Cotton Manufacture (1823)

The increasing number of steam-looms is a certain proof of their superiority over the hand-looms. In 1818, there were in Manchester, Stockport, Middleton, Hyde, Stayley Bridge, and their vicinities, 14 factories, containing about 2,000 looms. In 1821, there were in the same neighbourhoods 32 factories, containing 5,732 looms. Since 1821, their number has still increased, and there are at present not less than 10,000 steam-looms at work in Great Britain.

(Source 10) Model of a steam engine made by James Watt in 1769.
(Source 10) Model of a steam engine made by James Watt in 1769.


(Source 11) Gavin Weightman, The Industrial Revolutionaries (2007)

There is no doubt that Watt solved a great many problems and turned the lumbering old Newcomen engine into a much more streamlined machine which quickly won a worldwide reputation. But he was a cautious and conservative man and at every stage had to be cajoled into inventiveness by his partner Boulton. Left to his own devices, it is unlikely he would have produced much at all.

(Source 12) Chris Harman, A People's History of the World (2008)

In 1775 a Scottish instrument maker, James Watt, joined forces with the Birmingham engineer Matthew Boulton to produce steam engines which could turn machinery, haul enormous loads and, eventually, propel ships and land vehicles at speeds previously undreamed of.

(Source 13) Drawing of machinery being driven by one of Watt's steam-engines (1843)
(Source 13) Drawing of machinery being driven by one of Watt's steam-engines (1843)

(Source 14) Jennifer Tann, James Watt : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

Watt died at Heathfield in Handsworth, Birmingham, on 25 August 1819... He left his wife £1400 p.a. and Heathfield for life, and to his son the residue of the estate which included all documents, drawings, and tools. The will was proved on 13 October for a sum in excess of £60,000 (£81,000,000 in today's money).

(Source 15) In 1951 the Soviet Union government published a history textbook for use in its schools.

A self-taught Russian mechanic, Ivan Polsunov... invented and built a steam-engine, twenty years ahead of Watt. His engine worked well, but the use of steam-engines spread slowly through Russia, owing to serfdom which made manual labour cheap.

Questions for Students

Question 1: 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.

Question 2: Describe what is taking place in source 7.

Question 3: What was the main form of power used to drive textile machines in the years: (i) 1775-1785; (ii) 1795-1805?

Question 4: 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.

Question 5: Study source 13. Why were handloom weavers unhappy when they found out about Watt's steam-engine?

Question 6: Give as many reasons as you can why James Watt became a very rich man.

Question 7: 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?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.