Cover image for Watt's perfect engine : steam and the age of invention
Watt's perfect engine : steam and the age of invention
Marsden, Ben.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Columbia University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
ix, 213 pages : illustrations ; 19 cm.
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TJ461 .M36 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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As the inventor of the separate-condenser steam engine--that Promethean symbol of technological innovation and industrial progress--James Watt has become synonymous with the spirit of invention, while his last name has long been immortalized as the very measurement of power. But contrary to popular belief, Watt did not single-handedly bring about the steam revolution. His "perfect engine" was as much a product of late-nineteenth-century Britain as it was of the inventor's imagination.

As one of the greatest technological developments in human history, the steam engine was a major progenitor of the Industrial Revolution, but it was also symptomatic of its many problems. Armed with a patent on the separate-condenser principle and many influential political connections, Watt and his business partner Matthew Boulton fought to maintain a twenty-five-year monopoly on steam power that stifled innovation and ruthlessly crushed competition. After tinkering with boiling kettles and struggling with leaky cylinders for years without success, Watt would eventually amass a fortune and hold sway over an industry. But, as Ben Marsden shows, he owed his astonishing rise as much to espionage and political maneuvering as to his own creativity and determination.

This is a tale of science and technology in tandem, of factory show-spaces and international espionage, of bankruptcy and brain drains, lobbying and legislation, and patents and pirates. It reveals how James Watt--warts and all--became an icon fit for an age of industry and invention.

Author Notes

Ben Marsden is a lecturer in cultural history and the history of science at the University of Aberdeen.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Asking howames Watt got from the shipyards of Greenock to the tips of our tongues, Marsden declaims on the steam engine's putative inventor in a half-bemused, half-impressed tone that will amuse technology buffs in addition to giving them an appreciation for Watt's significance. Steam engines (specifically, the Newcomen machine) hissed for decades before Watt came along, yet upon his death in 1819, Victorians exalted him in statue, biography, and the unit name for power as the Newton of the Industrial Revolution. Marsden depicts Watt less as an innovator and more as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment, a man who combined an interest in natural philosophy with business. When fixing up a model of a Newcomen engine, its fuel inefficiency offended him.nowing that parsimony could be the road to profit, he set out to optimize the work steam could do and came up with the steam condenser, his claim to fame. Crystal clear on technical points, Marsden is archly amusing in discussing how reputations are made. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2004 Booklist

Choice Review

Marsden provides a brief but evenhanded compilation (from a reasonably broad selection of secondary sources) of James Watt's development of the separate condenser steam engine, a key step in making steam a practical industrial power source. The book is significantly better than the first impression given by its introduction, which is discouragingly overfilled with poetic imagery and distracting alliteration; in the main portion of the work, Marsden provides a well-written survey discussing Watt's early career, the possible influence of his association with scientists studying thermodynamics, his investigations into the constitution and properties of water, and his ideas for the separate condenser, double action and rotary motion engines, parallel motion, steam indicator cards, etc. It concludes with good survey chapters on the negative impact on long-term steam power development of Boulton and Watt's British steam-engine monopoly, and the crusade after his death to make Watt a mythical figure and icon of industrial efficiency. Contains little information on the influence of Matthew Boulton, or the operation of the Boulton and Watt partnership. No footnotes, but a list of nearly 50 accessible sources. An informative and well-organized introduction to Watt, but with little new information. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General readers; lower-division undergraduates; two-year technical program students. G. E. Herrick Maine Maritime Academy