The history of inventors is generally the same old struggle with
poverty. Sir Richard Arkwright, the youngest of thirteen children, with
no education, a barber, shaving in a cellar for a penny to each
customer, dies worth two and one-half million dollars, after being
knighted by the King for his inventions in spinning. Elias Howe, Jr., in
want and sorrow, lives on beans in a London attic, and dies at
forty-five, having received over two million dollars from his
sewing-machines in thirteen years. Success comes only through hard work
and determined perseverance. The steps to honor, or wealth, or fame, are
not easy to climb.
The history of James Watt, the inventor of the steam-engine, is no
exception to the rule of struggling to win. He was born in the little
town of Greenock, Scotland, 1736. Too delicate to attend school, he was
taught reading by his mother, and a little writing and arithmetic by his
father. When six years of age, he would draw mechanical lines and
circles on the hearth, with a colored piece of chalk. His favorite play
was to take to pieces his little carpenter tools, and make them into
different ones. He was an obedient boy, especially devoted to his
mother, a cheerful and very intelligent woman, who always encouraged
him. She would say in any childish quarrels, "Let James speak; from him
I always hear the truth." Old George Herbert said, "One good mother is
worth a hundred schoolmasters"; and such a one was Mrs. Watt.
When sent to school, James was too sensitive to mix with rough boys, and
was very unhappy with them. When nearly fourteen, his parents sent him
to a friend in Glasgow, who soon wrote back that they must come for
their boy, for he told so many interesting stories that he had read,
that he kept the family up till very late at night.
His aunt wrote that he would sit "for an hour taking off the lid of the
teakettle, and putting it on, holding now a cup and now a silver spoon
over the steam, watching how it rises from the spout, and catching and
condensing the drops of hot water it falls into."
Before he was fifteen, he had read a natural philosophy twice through,
as well as every other book he could lay his hands on. He had made an
electrical machine, and startled his young friends by some sudden
shocks. He had a bench for his special use, and a forge, where he made
small cranes, pulleys, pumps, and repaired instruments used on ships. He
was fond of astronomy, and would lie on his back on the ground for
hours, looking at the stars.
Frail though he was in health, yet he must prepare himself to earn a
living. When he was eighteen, with many tender words from his mother,
her only boy started for Glasgow to learn the trade of making
mathematical instruments. In his little trunk, besides his "best
clothes," which were a ruffled shirt, a velvet waistcoat, and silk
stockings, were a leather apron and some carpenter tools. Here he found
a position with a man who sold and mended spectacles, repaired fiddles,
and made fishing nets and rods.
Finding that he could learn very little in this shop, an old
sea-captain, a friend of the family, took him to London. Here, day after
day, he walked the streets, asking for a situation; but nobody wanted
him. Finally he offered to work for a watchmaker without pay, till he
found a place to learn his trade. This he at last obtained with a Mr.
Morgan, to whom he agreed to give a hundred dollars for the year's
teaching. As his father was poorly able to help him, the conscientious
boy lived on two dollars a week, earning most of this pittance by rising
early, and doing odd jobs before his employer opened his shop in the
morning. He labored every evening until nine o'clock, except Saturday,
and was soon broken in health by hunger and overwork. His mother's heart
ached for him, but, like other poor boys, he must make his way alone.
At the end of the year he went to Glasgow to open a shop for himself;
but other mechanics were jealous of a new-comer, and would not permit
him to rent a place. A professor at the Glasgow University knew the
deserving young man, and offered him a room in the college, which he
gladly accepted. He and the lad who assisted him could earn only ten
dollars a week, and there was little sale for the instruments after they
were made: so, following the example of his first master, he began to
make and mend flutes, fiddles, and guitars, though he did not know one
note from another. One of his customers wanted an organ built, and at
once Watt set to work to learn the theory of music. When the organ was
finished, a remarkable one for those times, the young machinist had
added to it several inventions of his own.
This earning a living was a hard matter; but it brought energy,
developed thought, and probably helped more than all else to make him
famous. The world in general works no harder than circumstances compel.
Poverty is no barrier to falling in love, and, poor though he was, he
now married Margaret Miller, his cousin, whom he had long tenderly
loved. Their home was plain and small; but she had the sweetest of
dispositions, was always happy, and made his life sunny even in its
darkest hours of struggling.
Meantime he had made several intellectual friends in the college, one of
whom talked much to him about a steam-carriage. Steam was not by any
means unknown. Hero, a Greek physician who lived at Alexandria a century
before the Christian era, tells how the ancients used it. Some crude
engines were made in Watt's time, the best being that of Thomas
Newcomen, called an atmospheric engine, and used in raising water from
coal-mines. It could do comparatively little, however; and many of the
mines were now useless because the water nearly drowned the miners.
Watt first experimented with common vials for steam-reservoirs, and
canes hollowed out for steam-pipes. For months he went on working night
and day, trying new plans, testing the powers of steam, borrowing a
brass syringe a foot long for his cylinder, till finally the essential
principles of the steam-engine were born in his mind. He wrote to a
friend, "My whole thoughts are bent on this machine. I can think of
nothing else." He hired an old cellar, and for two months worked on his
model. His tools were poor; his foreman died; and the engine, when
completed, leaked in all parts. His old business of mending instruments
had fallen off; he was badly in debt, and had no money to push forward
the invention. He believed he had found the right principle; but he
could not let his family starve. Sick at heart, and worn in body, he
wrote: "Of all things in life there is nothing more foolish than
inventing." Poor Watt!
His great need was money,--money to buy food, money to buy tools, money
to give him leisure for thought. Finally, a friend induced Dr. Roebuck,
an iron-dealer, to become Watt's partner, pay his debts of five thousand
dollars, take out a patent, and perfect the engine. Watt went to London
for his patent, but so long was he delayed by indifferent officials,
that he wrote home to his young wife, quite discouraged. With a brave
heart in their pinching poverty, Margaret wrote back, "I beg that you
will not make yourself uneasy, though things should not succeed to your
wish. If the engine will not do, something else will; never despair."
On his return home, for six months he worked in setting up his engine.
The cylinder, having been badly cast, was almost worthless; the piston,
though wrapped in cork, oiled rags, and old hat, let the air in and the
steam out; and the model proved a failure. "To-day," he said, "I enter
the thirty-fifth year of my life, and I think I have hardly yet done
thirty-five pence worth of good in the world: but I cannot help it." The
path to success was not easy.
Dr. Roebuck was getting badly in debt, and could not aid him as he had
promised; so Watt went sadly back to surveying, a business he had taken
up to keep the wolf from the door. In feeble health, out in the worst
weather, his clothes often wet through, life seemed almost unbearable.
When absent on one of these surveying excursions, word was brought that
Margaret, his beloved wife, was dead. He was completely unnerved. Who
would care for his little children, or be to him what he had often
called her, "the comfort of his life"? After this he would often pause
on the threshold of his humble home to summon courage to enter, since
she was no longer there to welcome him. She had shared his poverty, but
was never to share his fame and wealth.
And now came a turning-point in his life, though the struggles were by
no means over. At Birmingham, lived Matthew Boulton, a rich
manufacturer, eight years older than Watt. He employed over a thousand
men in his hardware establishment, and in making clocks, and reproducing
rare vases. He was a friend of Benjamin Franklin, with whom he had
corresponded about the steam-engine, and he had also heard of Watt and
his invention through Dr. Roebuck. He was urged to assist. But Watt
waited three years longer for aid. Nine years had passed since he made
his invention; he was in debt, without business, and in poor health.
What could he do? He seemed likely to finish life without any success.
Finally Boulton was induced to engage in the manufacture of engines,
giving Watt one-third of the profits, if any were made. One engine was
constructed by Boulton's men, and it worked admirably. Soon orders came
in for others, as the mines were in bad condition, and the water must be
pumped out. Fortunes, like misfortunes, rarely come singly. Just at this
time the Russian Government offered Watt five thousand dollars yearly if
he would go to that country. Such a sum was an astonishment. How he
wished Margaret could have lived to see this proud day!
He could not well be spared from the company now; so he lived on at
Birmingham, marrying a second time, Anne Macgregor of Scotland, to care
for his children and his home. She was a very different woman from
Margaret Miller; a neat housekeeper, but seemingly lacking in the
lovable qualities which make sunshine even in the plainest home.
As soon as the Boulton and Watt engines were completed, and success
seemed assured, obstacles arose from another quarter. Engines had been
put into several Cornwall mines, which bore the singular names of "Ale
and Cakes," "Wheat Fanny," "Wheat Abraham," "Cupboard," and "Cook's
Kitchen." As soon as the miners found that these engines worked well,
they determined to destroy the patent by the cry that Boulton and Watt
had a monopoly of a thing which the world needed. Petitions were
circulated, giving great uneasiness to both the partners. Several
persons also stole the principle of the engine, either by bribing the
engine-men, or by getting them drunk so that they would tell the secrets
of their employers. The patent was constantly infringed upon. Every hour
was a warfare. Watt said, "The rascality of mankind is almost past
Meantime Boulton, with his many branches of business, and the low state
of trade, had gotten deeply in debt, and was pressed on every side for
the tens of thousands which he owed. Watt was nearly insane with this
trouble. He wrote to Boulton: "I cannot rest in my bed until these money
matters have assumed some determinate form. I am plagued with the blues.
I am quite eaten up with the mulligrubs."
Soon after this, Watt invented the letter-copying press, which at first
was greatly opposed, because it was thought that forged names and
letters would result. After a time, however, there was great demand for
it. Watt was urged by Boulton to invent a rotary engine; but this was
finally done by their head workman, William Murdock, the inventor of
lighting by gas. He also made the first model of a locomotive, which
frightened the village preacher nearly out of his senses, as it came
puffing down the street one evening. Though devoted to his employers,
sometimes working all night for them, they counselled him to give up all
thought about his locomotive, lest by developing it he might in time
withdraw from their firm. Alas for the selfishness of human nature! He
was never made a partner, and, though he thought out many inventions
after his day's work was done, he remained faithful to their service
till the end of his life. Mr. Buckle tells this good story of Murdock.
Having found that fish-skins could be used instead of isinglass, he came
to London to inform the brewers, and took board in a handsome house.
Fancying himself in his laboratory, he went on with his experiments.
Imagine the horror of the landlady when she entered his room, and found
her elegant wall-paper covered with wet fish-skins, hung up to dry! The
inventor took an immediate departure with his skins. When the rotary
engine was finished, the partners sought to obtain a charter, when lo!
The millers and mealmen all opposed it, because, said they, "If flour is
ground by steam, the wind and water-mills will stop, and men will be
thrown out of work." Boulton and Watt viewed with contempt this new
obstacle of ignorance. "Carry out this argument," said the former, "and
we must annihilate water-mills themselves, and go back again to the
grinding of corn by hand labor." Presently a large mill was burned by
incendiaries, with a loss of fifty thousand dollars.
Watt about this time invented his "Parallel Motion," and the Governor,
for regulating the speed of the engine. Large orders began to come in,
even from America and the West Indies; but not till they had expended
two hundred thousand dollars were there any profits. Times were
brightening for the hard-working inventor. He lost his despondency, and
did not long for death, as he had previously.
After a time, he built a lovely home at Heathfield, in the midst of
forty acres of trees, flowers, and tasteful walks. Here gathered some of
the greatest minds of the world,--Dr. Priestley who discovered oxygen,
Sir William Herschel, Dr. Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, and scores of others,
who talked of science and literature. Mrs. Watt so detested dirt, and so
hated the sight of her husband's leather apron and soiled hands, that he
built for himself a "garret," where he could work unmolested by his
wife, or her broom and dustpan. She never allowed even her two pug-dogs
to cross the hall without wiping their feet on the mat. She would seize
and carry away her husband's snuff-box, wherever she found it, because
she considered snuff as dirt. At night, when she retired from the
dining-room, if Mr. Watt did not follow at the time fixed by her, she
sent a servant to remove the lights. If friends were present, he would
say meekly, "We must go," and walk slowly out of the room. Such conduct
must have been about as trying as the failure of his engines. For days
together he would stay in his garret, not even coming down to his meals,
cooking his food in his frying-pan and Dutch oven, which he kept by him.
One cannot help wondering, whether, sometimes, as he worked up there
alone, he did not think of Margaret, whose face would have brightened
even that dingy room.
A crushing sorrow now came to him. His only daughter, Jessie, died, and
then his pet son, Gregory, the dearest friend of Humphry Davy, a young
man of brilliant scholarship and oratorical powers. Boulton died before
his partner, loved and lamented by all, having followed the precept he
once gave to Watt: "Keep your mind and your heart pleasant, if possible;
for the way to go through life sweetly is not to regard rubs."
Watt died peacefully Aug. 19, 1819, in his eighty-third year, and was
buried in beautiful Handsworth Church. Here stands Chantrey's
masterpiece, a sitting statue of the great inventor. Another is in
Westminster Abbey. When Lord Brougham was asked to write the inscription
for this monument, he said, "I reckon it one of the chief honors of my
life." Sir James Mackintosh placed him "at the head of all inventors in
all ages and nations"; and Wordsworth regarded him, "Considering both
the magnitude and the universality of his genius, as perhaps the most
extraordinary man that this country has ever produced."
After all the struggle came wealth and fame. The mine opens up its
treasures only to those who are persevering enough to dig into it; and
life itself yields little, only to such as have the courage and the will
to overcome obstacles.
Heathfield has passed into other hands; but the quiet garret is just as
James Watt left it at death. Here is a large sculpture machine, and many
busts partly copied. Here is his handkerchief tied to the beam on which
he rested his head. The beam itself is crumbling to dust. Little pots of
chemicals on the shelves are hardened by age. A bunch of withered grapes
is on a dish, and the ashes are in the grate as when he sat before it.
Close by is the hair trunk of his beloved Gregory, full of his
schoolbooks, his letters, and his childish toys. This the noble old man
kept beside him to the last.