Saturday, 15 January 2022

James Watt’s Russian encounter

A few months back, I gave a lecture at Varahamihira Science Forum, which explained how James Watt invented the steam engine. I prepared this lecture, for a course I teach on Inventions and Discoveries, at Saveetha College.

Andrew Carnegie’s biography of James Watt was a major source for learning about James Watt, his childhood and education, his technical training, experiments, struggles, failures, friends, marriages, religious and social beliefs, the economic and legal environment of England, partnerships (most importantly with Matthew Boulton), his success, his continued research and development, other inventions, employees, customers, his scientific discovery, his obstinacy and resistance to improving the steam engine.


An absolutely fascinating story. I am surprised that I had never even heard of the book, before I stumbled upon it. It was out of print then, but available online in Kindle. Many aspects of his life, and the engine he invented, were quite surprising. My lecture seemed to have no effect at all on the few listeners, so perhaps my surprise is unwarranted.

At one stage in his life, he struggled for lack of money. His partner John Roebuck’s business failed, so Watt had no money to continue experiments to make the steam engine work well. Fortunately, he met Mathew Boulton, an entreprising businessman, very creative in organization and sales. Boulton and Watt formed an enduring friendship and business partnership that have rarely been surpassed in history.

Roebuck and Watt had signed an agreement. As per this agreement, Roebuck invested a thousand pounds ( a huge amount in the 1760s) funding Watt’s investigations into the steam engine. He was confident Watt would develop a better engine than the Newcomen engine that was in use among miners. When Watt succeeded, the idea was that Watt would get one-third share of the profits and Roebuck two-thirds as investor. But Roebuck’s main business failed, he was in debt, and Watt’s research money dried up. Boulton stepped in, paid off Roebuck’s debts, plus the thousand pounds for his the steam engine investment and thus replaced Roebuck as Watt’s business partner.

Recently, the British government, which only printed the faces of the ruling king or queen on its currency, the pound, until recently, issued a fifty pound currency note, featuring Watt and Boulton together.


Boulton owned a “manufactory” (what we call a factory today). His employees, artisans, manufactured “toys” – but the word meant something very different in the 18th century. Toys included buttons, buckles, cups, jars, candlesticks, copper and silver plates – what we find in every fancy goods store in any street in India. Britain was getting wealthier and developing a middle class, and they bought such new fancy things to decorate their houses.

But Boulton did not sell only to the new middle class. His famous customers were wealthy and some were aristocrats. His prestige really rocketed when princes of the English royal family became his customers. Princes Edward and George (who later became king) bought swords from Boulton’s manufactory. After that other royalty also became his customers. His best customer was Catherine the Great, of Russia. Yes, that very same Catherine who later became Empress or Czarina. The empress not only visited Boulton’s manufactory, she also stayed as his house guest. And that is when Boulton must have told her about his brilliant inventor friend who was experimenting with a steam engine.

Tankard, Boulton factory 
Picture: Wikipedia



Tea urn, Boulton factory 
Picture: Wikipedia



Catherine was so impressed with Watt, she offered him five thousand pounds to come and settle in Russia, and continue his research there. James Watt must have been sorely tempted. Boulton was aghast! He pleaded with Watt not to accept the Queen’s offer, and thanks to his friendship, Watt agreed to stay back. Watt’s first wife had died a few years earlier, and his attempts to marry another lady (somewhat wealthy) were stymied by her brother, until the more respectable Boulton wrote a recommendation letter to the lady’s father. One suspects that this played a big role in persuading Watt to stay.

One might wonder if England’s most famous inventor would actually have left England for Tsarist Russia. It would seem odd today, when England freely allows all the business magnates of the world to buy homes in their country. But much before Watt, Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler had gone to stay and research in St Petersburg, Russia. In fact, he was following in the footsteps of the Bernoulli brothers. Euler stayed for a few years in Russia before accepting Frederick of Prussia’s invitation to move to Germany, but Catherine the Great invited him back to Russia and back he went. So, no surprise that Catherine invited James Watt, also.

The discoveries of Euler in mathematics were not particularly useful to Russia. It simply gave Russia an intellectual prestige, that it could attract exceptional talent, on par with the more scientifically advanced Western European nations. But if James Watt had accepted Catherine’s offer, Russia would have benefited from an early lead in the steam engine, and perhaps even in the Industrial Revolution.

Similarly, Thomas Edison almost migrated to Brazil, and was about to board a ship, before a gentleman he met advised him to try his fortune in New York, instead. But that is another story.

References

James Watt, by Andrew Carnegie

Essays about Inventors and Discoverers

 


Monday, 10 January 2022

இந்திய கணிதம் - தகவல் இதழ்கள்

CSIR (சி.எஸ்.ஐ.ஆர் ) என்னும் நிறுவனத்தின் ஒரு கிளை NIScPR (தேசிய அறிவியல் கொள்கை பரப்புக் கூடம்) அறிவியல் தகவல்களை பரப்பிவருகிறது. அதில் சுவஸ்திக் என்ற ஒரு திட்டத்தின் கீழ சமீபத்தில் இந்திய கணித மரபை உரைக்கும் தகவலிதழ்களை (போஸ்டர்/சுவரொட்டி) தயாரித்துள்ளனர். அவர்களுக்கு என் மனமார்ந்த நன்றி. மேலும் இதுபோல் மேலும் பல தகவல் இதழ்களை வரும்நாட்களில் உருவாக்குவார்கள்.

நான் சில மாதங்களுக்கு முன் எழுதிய கட்டுரைகள் இந்த தகவல்களுக்கு அடித்தளமாக அமைந்தன. சில மாதங்களுக்கு முன் தமிழில் இந்திய கணித வானியல் மரபை ஒரு பாடதிட்டமாக வகுத்து, வராகமிகிரன் அறிவியல் மன்றத்தில் நாங்கள் நடத்தியது நினைவிருக்கலாம்.

இந்திய அறிவியல மரபை பற்றி ஆர்வலர் அறிய, இதை நீங்களும் பகிரலாம். 

இங்கே இந்த இதழ்களின்  டுவிட்டர் பகிர்வு

ஆரியபடன் - தமிழ் கட்டுரை

இந்த வலைப்பூவில் என் கணித கட்டுரைகள்








Friday, 31 December 2021

Indian Mathematics posters

The National Institute of Science Communication and Policy Research (NIScPR) at CSIR has created and released a few posters on Indian mathematics to promote awareness.

They have shared them on Twitter 

Here are the posters : they are about the contributions of Aryabhata. I hope they are useful to enthusiasts. My essays about Aryabhata as part of a series in Swarajya, give more details about his contributions. 









Indian Mathematics - Introductory series : Swarajya magazine
Aryabhata - essay in The Week magazine



Thursday, 9 December 2021

Lesser known quotes of some philosophers

"Sambar tastes very different from rasagolla" - Swami Vivekananda

"Desire is the root cause of capitalism" - Henry Ford

"Truth alone triumphs. Except during an election" - Vashishta

"Those who dont learn from geography are condemned to use Google maps" - Sergey Brin

"Writing begins with the letter a, like the world begins with the Foremost Bhagavaan" - Tiruvalluvar

"You never learnt Chinese, did you, Tiruvalluvar?" - Confucius

"This goat is eating better than me" - MK Gandhi

"Should I free my slaves or go fly a kite?" - Benjamin Franklin

"Now that I have freed the slaves, should I give women the right to vote? Too soon?" - Abraham Lincoln

"I wonder if I can clean myself by walking in the rain or should I soak in a bathtub?" - Archimedes

"It was amazing. There are thousands of these college graduates from China and India, who are good at mathematics, engineering, even writing software. Most of them could also speak English." - Larry Ellison

"Even the Greeks can do mathematics" - Varahamihira

"Deadbeats of the world, unite. We need to reduce the workload of workers" - Karl Marx

"I wonder if there is an invisible leg. Or a finger" - Adam Smith

"Even when I dont think, I still am. I wonder why." - Descartes

"Anger cools down. Entropy or something" - Avvaiyaar

---

Some other pearls of my wisdom

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

அன்னப் பறவையின் புகழ்

मत्स्यापि विजानन्ति नीर क्षीर विवेचनम्

प्रसिद्धम् राजहंसस्य पुण्यै परै: अवाप्यते

மத்ஸ்யா-அபி விஜாநந்தி நீரக்ஷீர விவேசனம்
ப்ரஸித்தம் ராஜஹம்ஸஸ்ய புண்யை: பரை: அவாப்யதே

அன்னப்பறவை ஓவியம்
துக்காச்சி கோவில், கும்பகோணம் மாவட்டம்
 

மேல்கண்ட சுபாஷிதம் (வடமொழியில் பழமொழி) நகுபோலியன் எனும் பாலு சார் கற்றுத் தந்தது. ஏனோ திடீரென்று தோன்றியது, தமிழில் ஒரு கவிதையாய் புனைந்து நண்பர் திவாகர தனயனுக்கு வாட்சாப்பில் அனுப்பினேன். இதோ என் கவிதை
பால் வேறு தண்ணீர் வேறு
பாங்கறியும் மீனும் அன்றோ
புகழ் சென்றது அன்னம் தேடி
பூர்வீக புண்ணியம் என் கொல்

பதம்பிறிப்பு
மத்ஸ்யா: மீன்
அபி: உம் விகுதி
விஜாநந்தி -அறியும்
நீர - நீர்
க்ஷீர - பால்
விவேசனம் - வேற்றுமை
ப்ரஸித்தம் - புகழ்
ராஜஹம்ஸஸ்ய - ராஜ அன்னத்திற்கு
புண்யை: -புண்ணியம்
பரை: -பூர்வீகத்தில்
அவாப்யதே - பெற்றது

பதிலுக்கு ஆசுகவி இந்த கவிதையை சில நிமிடங்களில் புனைந்து எனக்கு அனுப்பினார்.
சின்னக் கயலுந்தன் சிந்தை யறியுமாம்
இன்னவை நீரிவை பாலென்று - மென்றொடீ!
அன்னப் பறவைக்கே அப்புகழ் சேர்ந்ததும்
முன்னைப் பிறவிப் பயன்
அடடா, இதுவன்றோ கவிதை. அவர் மகேந்திர வர்மனை போல் மாறுவேடம் போட்டுக்கொண்டே மயிலையிலும் முகநூலிலும் திரிவதால், இங்கே அவர் கவிதையை பகிற்கிறேன்.

ஹம்ஸ வரி, திருவரங்கம் கோவில்

நான் மொழிபெயர்த்த சில சம்ஸ்கிருத கவிதகள்

ராஜசிம்ம பல்லவன் - கல்வெட்டு
கணகன் மகாவீரன் - கணித வாழ்த்து
வராஹமிஹிரன் - அகத்தியர் வாழ்த்து