Gordon Masterton Talk

Gordon Masterton gave members a new perspective on James Watt by comparing his achievements with John Smeaton, an engineer whose life and career overlapped with Watt’s.  While Smeaton was also a great engineer, it was Watt’s 1769 patented steam engine improvements which unleashed the power that changed the world.  Aided, of course, with the business approach he developed in partnership with Matthew Boulton.  Watt’s subsequent engineering improvements led to rotative engines which went onto power mills, factories and locomotives.  These achievements gained him international recognition.  Surprising then, to discover that Watt’s and Smeaton’s paths had initially crossed over the construction of the Forth & Clyde and Monkland Canals, both civil, rather than mechanical, engineering projects.  Their cooperation over civil engineering matters with the canals later turned to rivalry when they competed to build ‘fire engines’, as steam engines were known at the time.  However, it became clear in due course that Watt and his partner Boulton had the engineering edge when it came to designing and making efficient engines.  Moreover, the Boulton & Watt’s business model was based on profit from the fuel savings to the customer rather than the cost of the engine.  This beat the prevailing competition hands down!

For this talk, Gordon challenged the Club to find six volunteers to play the parts of Watt’s and Smeaton’s contemporaries to read out reports from the time.  Thus resulting in our first ever interactive talk on our Zoom sessions.  One suspects that Gordon is paving his way to become a TV documentary writer!  Anyway Hamish Eadie, Alan Davison, Dermot Kennedy, Ken Fisher, Robin Leake and John Walls rose to the challenge and are to be thanked for their help in bringing Watt’s and Smeaton’s times to life.

Watt was 12 years younger than Smeaton.  However, they had many similarities.  They both came from comfortable families, both had been involved as young men in making scientific instruments and both were civil and mechanical engineers, an engineering distinction unlikely to be made at the time.  Moreover, it was clear that both learned a lot from self-teaching.  Indeed, Watt learned German so that he could read about Leopold’s ‘Theatrum Machinum’ to gain insights into hydrology and pumping water.  In addition, Watt had a lifelong circle of friends such as John Anderson (of Anderson’s College fame), Joseph Black and John Robison who were well versed in science, commercial practice and craftsmanship.  Always an advantage when you are working at the cutting edge of technology.

It was in 1765 that James Watt, aged 29, had his eureka moment realising how to increase the efficiency of the Newcomen Atmospheric Engine.  This was principally by the addition of a condenser.  However, it was another four years before he patented his idea which reduced fuel consumption by three or four fold.  It also gave the ability to increase potential power output of steam engines.  Later improvements gave rotary power, a real game changer.  This accelerated the pace of the industrial revolution while giving the UK a 50 year start.

Smeaton was often in Scotland around this time as he was working on the design and construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal which opened in 1790.  Watt, who had been commissioned to design and build the Monkland Canal, approached Smeaton in 1770 to discuss water supply arrangements, a matter of mutual interest.  The records show that they also discussed fire engines at the time.  Watt shared his ideas with Smeaton but was careful to protect his patent.  Later Watt consulted Smeaton on bridge foundation design for a commission from the Duke of Hamilton to build a bridge at Rutherglen.  Photographs of the two bridges revealed that Watt’s bridge design clearly resonated very closely to Smeaton’s Coldstream Bridge.

In the early 1770s Smeaton built an improved version of the Newcomen engine in Longbenton, Northumberland.  It was 25% more efficient and seen as very successful.  Later, in 1776, Smeaton was commissioned to build an improved engine to pump water at Chacewater Mine, Cornwall.  Because of the depth involved Smeaton chose to use two fire engines to drive the pumps.  However, they were unsuccessful in draining the deep mine which tarnished his reputation.  Two years later in 1778 Boulton & Watt’s more efficient single fire engine and pump succeeded in draining the mine helping to cement their reputation.  So despite Smeaton’s considerable efforts at seeking to improve Newcomen type engines, he failed to match the design and efficiency of the Boulton and Watt engines.

It was when Watt ended his association with the Monkland Canal, he took up a partnership in Birmingham with Matthew Boulton in 1775.  Watt was happy to take a one third share, leaving Boulton with a two thirds share.  On establishing the partnership, Boulton shrewdly went to Parliament and successfully sought an extension to Watt’s patent for 25 years.  Gordon sees this as a brilliant step of foresight and boldness as no full sized engine had yet been built!  This partnership delivered two crucial things; a) craftsmanship and good quality engineering and b) a new business model, as already mentioned, based on fuel savings to clients unmatched by competitors.

As Boulton and Watt engines were being rolled out, there was evidence of Smeaton’s rivalry.  He would give grudging praise to his competitors but with qualifications such as B&W’s engines were too complicated.  This lasted a few years including anonymous press articles attacking Boulton and Watt’s engines.  However, Boulton & Watt responded diplomatically and, in time, Smeaton became reconciled and ‘left the field of battle’ in 1785.

In his concluding remarks, Gordon observed that Smeaton was recognised as a major figure in engineering from his work on the Forth and Clyde Canal and Eddystone lighthouse.  However, his domestic success failed to match the international recognition of James Watt whose steam engines were truly transformational across the world.  This is reflected in the number of statues erected to him in Britain from London to Edinburgh and in Europe as far away as Budapest.  Still, as this author reflects, the Forth and Clyde and Monkland Canals helped open Scotland’s Central Belt coalfields and ironstone deposits which led to rapid industrialisation across the country, quite a legacy for both engineers.  Thanks are due to Gordon for giving us this new perspective on James Watt’s achievements.  Quite different from the boy trying to hold the kettle lid down in the kitchen!

Gordon Masterton Talk