Watt is Making it Hot in Here?


If you’re like me whose idea of video gaming is still rooted in PSX and Game Boy Advance nostalgia, chances are you don’t have a Steam engine installed in your computer. There’s absolutely nothing that can top the experience of completing Final Fantasies IV, VI, VII, and my personal favorite VIII. Fire Emblem was also the game that comforted me in bouts of ennui. Do I also have to remind everyone how amazing Pokemon was and still is? Obviously, I was stuck in the past, and for good reasons. However, this inability and reluctance to try modern modes of gaming both made it difficult for me to have conversations with today’s gamers. Which is probably why I have low self-esteam.

But now is not the time to talk about gaming or computers. It’s time to talk about another machine that helped usher the industrial revolution, and in doing so paved the way for computers (and games) to be developed. I’m talking about James Watt’s steam engine.

Steam engines have been around for quite some time. In fact, while it was instigating its own revolution, it also stood witness to the French one of 1789. The very first steam operated machine was developed by the Spaniard Jeronimo de Ayanz, whose work was patented in 1606. Its primary function was to siphon water out of coal mines to prevent flooding. Coal mining was integral in the heydays of imperial expansion, and nascent powers like the British weren’t just about to let their rivals go full steam ahead in the race. In 1698, the inventor Thomas Savery developed and patented the first English steam engine, and with a touch of mission and diplomacy named it “Miner’s friend”. Then came another Thomas, the newcomer Thomas Newcomen, whose 1712 work laid out the design for the first atmospheric steam engine. It worked wonders. But people soon realized that it was greatly limited. Improvements could be and had to be made. Question was, who would be able to come up with something better?

Look no further.


Bust of James Watt. Photo by Kim Traynor

James Watt was born in January 19, 1736 in a Scottish town called Greenock. He was quite sickly as a child and had to be homeschooled in his early years. The young Watt would later develop a love for mathematics and engineering, and he often made mini-models of various apparatus in his father’s workshop.

When he turned 18, he went to London for an apprenticeship as an instrument maker. After a year, he went to Glasgow to set up his own shop. His trade was mostly for repairs, and it was not until the University of Glasgow offered him a small workshop in its premises that things started to get rolling for the young Watt.

In 1757 he was formally appointed in the university’s workshop. He proved himself to be a capable man with excellent mechanical skills, so much so that in 1763 the university asked him to repair their Newcomen steam engine. Not only did Watt successfully repair the instrument, but he also found a way to improve it. But before we proceed with Watt’s innovation, we must first understand how Newcomen’s device worked, so let’s observe the illustration below to see how:



A boiler heats water up until it turns to steam. Next, a valve opens to let the steam fill an empty piston cylinder above the boiler. Gas expansion and rise in pressure within the cylinder lift the piston against outside atmospheric pressure up until a point. The steam valve then closes and another valve opens to spray cold water into the hot cylinder. The cold water cools the cylinder which condenses the introduced steam, lowering the temperature and the pressure, thus allowing atmospheric pressure to push the piston down. This creates work in the form of a pulling motion in the opposite chain, as seen on the left side of the illustration.


While ingenious in its time, it was certainly insufficient to fully power a revolution. Simply put, it couldn’t. It was terribly inefficient. Lots of steam was put to waste since the cylinder had to be drastically cooled in order to start the next work cycle. Why was this a problem? The cooled cylinder required more steam to push the piston up because of the low temperature and pressure. It’s like going back to zero in every cycle. More steam meant more energy required. There must’ve been a way to condense the steam in the piston cylinder without it losing heaps of heat. This was the realization that Watt focused on when he developed his own engine.

His take was fairly simple, but undeniably revolutionary. Instead of overhauling the system, he simply introduced another cylinder. What this new cylinder did was remove the need for spraying the piston cylinder with water. This is how Watt’s steam engine works: like in the Newcomen engine, a boiler sends steam into the piston cylinder. After a certain amount of steam is injected, the entry valve closes, then another valve opens. But this doesn’t spray water into the piston cylinder. Instead, this valve acts like a vacuum. It sucks out steam in the heated cylinder and transfers it to the other cylinder which is cooler, thereby condensing the sucked steam into water. As steam moves out of the piston cylinder, temperature and pressure decrease without losing so much heat. This means that it needs less steam in order for it to start and complete the next work cycles. Less steam meant less energy required. Keeping things hot did prove beneficial. Thus, Watt developed a truly efficient system.

Watt soon entered a business partnership with Matthew Boulton to start mass production of his engine design. It became a commercial success. Not only was it helpful in coal mining, but it also aided agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation. This potential for multiple-use led to further improvements by future developers and engineers: a technological transition that started with Watt working on Newcomen’s engine.

The world we live in right now is a direct product of the industrial revolution which was (among many others) sparked by Watt’s work. Implicit in that statement is the appreciation for knowledge and theory transfer across generations and the exploration of their applications. Watt’s work would have been close to impossible without the contributions of earlier inventors like Savery. Therefore, there is much to learn from history, and posterity has much to profit from bearing the light of the past’s flames. Maybe I’m simply justifying my insistence to play older video games. But if Watt’s engine is any indication, perhaps modern video games are also as good, if not better, as the old ones. Who knows? Let me find out.

For now, I’ll have to stay patient as my slow Philippine internet connection downloads Steam.


Rosen, William. The most powerful idea in the world: a story of steam, industry, and invention. (Reprint) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  2012



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