Monday, 9 November 2020

James Watt - 10 - Ten books that influenced me



Not only is this the first book I have read about James Watt, it is the first book I have HEARD OF about James Watt. And who is the author? One of the greatest steel magnates of the nineteenth century, one of the most amazing industrialists, perhaps the richest man of his time

Writing about one of the most transformational people in human history.

And I have never seen any book in a bookshop about either of them, or even any mention. I only stumbled on to this copy as a free version on Amazon Kindle(it is still free for download)

The story of James Watt and his improvement of the steam engine is far more fascinating than the cute legend we hear about Watt watching a kettle boil and being inspired to build a steam engine.

From Archimedes to Aristarchus, Baudhayana to Bodhidharma to Bhaskaracharya, Cai Lun to al Hazen, and Leonardo da Vinci to Isaac Newton, plenty of astoundingly brilliant people throughout history have watched water boil, (legend has it Bodhidharma was the first to boil tea itself)... but none of them invented a steam engine.

I first read in a casual browsing of a book about the history of science that Watt's great invention was the "external condenser", which vastly improved earlier steam engines made by Denis Papin, Thomas Newcomen etc. (That same week I also discovered why Edison was different from the others working on the electric

Carnegie wrote a marvelous biography, worthy of any professional writer. He maybe the best billionaire biographer the world has produced. He does mention the kettle story, but goes into the struggles Watt faced, his discovery of latent heat, a discussion with a friend, Prof Joseph Black, who had very recently discovered latent heat of steam himself, and Watt's marvelous tinkering and experiments and improvements and brilliant insight, which led to the external condenser, and made the steam engine useful and productive; and perhaps the most transformational device the world had seen since the discovery of glass and lenses a few centuries earlier. Far more impactful than the lens, though (not many scientists may agree - they seem to think the telescope deserves that honor).

The book also discusses how much Watt had to be a hands on person, because how hard it was for him to train others to understand his steam engine and operate it, and how sadly England suffered so depressingly from alcoholism, which probably retarded the Industrial revolution for a couple of decades at least.

I first read in a casual browsing of a book about the history of science that Watt's great invention was the "external condenser", which vastly improved earlier steam engines made by Denis Papin, Thomas Newcomen etc. (That same week I also discovered why Edison was different from the others working on the electric bulb, but that's another story).

But the fact that a biography of one of the greatest engineers was written by the richest man in the world; and a century later, the book is practically forgotten; seems astounding to me   - too much Ajivika, too much Wallace. So this is my choice.

Related Links

My essays on Literature

My essays on Inventors and Discoverers

Bill Gates review of a book on Steam engines



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