Watt's Perfect Engine: Steam and the Age of Invention / Edition 1

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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.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews


An informative and well-organized introduction to Watt... Recommended [for] general readers, lower-division undergraduates, and two-year technical program students.


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.... Crystal clear on technical points, Marsden is archly amusing in discussing how reputations are made.


A lively historical coverage of how the engine evolved and reflected not only the promise, but the problems of the industrial revolution. A fine, wide-ranging history.

Eighteenth-Century Scotland

An engagingly written little book.


An informative and well-organized introduction to Watt... Recommended [for] general readers, lower-division undergraduates, and two-year technical program students.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231131728
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 2/4/2004
  • Series: Revolutions in Science Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 4.60 (w) x 7.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

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

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: What's Watt? 1
Ch. I Breeding an Inventor 9
Ch. II Re-discovering Steam 27
Ch. III Re-inventing Steam 43
Ch. IV An Experiment in Engineering 69
Ch. V Learning Industry 87
Ch. VI Doubling, Rotating, Expanding and Indicating 107
Ch. VII Circumnavigating Watt: Pirates and Patents 137
Ch. VIII Manufacturing and Marketing: the Business of the Steam Engine 147
Ch. IX 'My dear philosophe': James Watt, Man of Science 159
Ch. X The Progeny of Steam: Planes, Trains and Automobiles? 173
Ch. XI Monuments and Myths: Re-imagining Watt 183
Glossary 203
Bibliography 207
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