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James Watt

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.