GUEST POST: Watt a Genius
The first guest post here from our newly-minted (ir)regular columnist who we’ve dubbed, for reasons that will become apparent over subsequent weeks, InsideTheWall.
The release of the Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 movie found me reading the perfect accompanying book.
Called Great Inventors & Their Inventions, the first biographical account is of James Watt, the man who turned Newcomen's early attempts at a steam engine (at the time known as the Fire Engine) into a working, reliable and powerful engine that we all heard about in school.
Not only does the story tell of the money he spent and borrowed, the extraordinary graft, the years of trials and failures–it also tells a story of applied genius, of one man against the mob (a story which of course we didn't hear in school) and how he overcame all the hurdles to achieve eventual recognition and success, bringing a new thing into existence that transformed men’s lives.
So here's a long story short. The story began with him designing his engine simply to pump water out of mines. But he quickly saw there were hundreds more applications for it—particularly in mills grinding corn and wheat which at that time were powered by either wind or water, making them either unreliable or unable to be located away from a water course.
The working people of these mills didn’t see the increased production of cheaper food that he saw however; they saw only a danger to their incomes, and began to protest at the installation of Watt’s new engines, often quite violently. Not for them the labour-saving utility of such a powerful and never-get-tired contraption, one that would eventually make everyone richer.
“It seems [wrote Watt at the time] these people are determined to be masters of us. To put a stop to fire-engine mills, because they come in competition with water mills, would be as absurd as to put a stop to canals, because they interfere with those who carry things by wagon. The argument that men are deprived of a work would put a stop to the use of all machines whereby labour is saved. Carry out this argument, and we must do away with water mills themselves, and go back again to grinding corn by hand labour.”
So strong were the feelings against Watt's machine that when he and his business partner built a sixty thousand dollar (do your own conversion into pounds and add inflation) working mill of their own it was deliberately burnt to the ground.
But all was not lost, the working mill lasted long enough that it created interest from industrialists from Britain to France, from Italy to America. The Luddites lost! Watt won. And so did we.
So successful did his engine prove to be that opposition changed from destroying his products to stealing them. Unscrupulous mine owners refused to pay for the machines that had raised their production. And perfidious competitors stole and used his patents unpaid, and attempted to have his ownership of them stripped—asking Parliament to do down the very man who had given them their chance at (unearned) piles of money.
"We are in the state of the old Roman [wrote Watt] who was found guilty of raising better crops than his neighbours, and was ordered to bring before the assembly of the people his instruments of husbandry, and tell them of his arts. He complied, and when he had done, said, 'These, O Romans, are the instruments of our art, but I cannot bring into the forum the labours, the sweats, the watchings, the anxieties, the cares which produce the crops.' So everyone sees the reward which we may yet probably receive from our labours; but few consider the price we have paid for that reward, which is by no means certain."
Eventually, however, the great man received the justice, and the honours, he deserved. And here, to show the esteem in which his country finally held him, is the inscription from the monument dedicated to him in Westminster Abbey:
“Not to perpetuate a name which must endure while the peaceful arts flourish, but to shew that mankind have learned to know those who best deserve their gratitude. The King, His Ministers, and many of the Nobles and Commoners of the Realm raised this monument to JAMES WATT who, directing the force of an original Genius, early exercised in philosophic research, to the improvement of the Steam Engine, enlarged the resources of his Country, increased the power of Man, and rose to an eminent place among the most illustrious followers of science and the real benefactors of the World.
Can you imagine any businessman having this said of him now?