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James Watt, Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer, renowned for his improvements of the steam engine. Watt was born on January 19, 1736, in Greenock, Scotland. He worked as a mathematical-instrument maker from the age of 19 and soon became interested in improving the steam engines, invented by the English engineers Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen, which were used at the time to pump water from mines.
Watt determined the properties of steam, especially the relation of its density to its temperature and pressure, and designed a separate condensing chamber for the steam engine that prevented enormous losses of steam in the cylinder and enhanced the vacuum conditions. Watt's first patent, in 1769, covered this device and other improvements on Newcomen's engine, such as steam-jacketing, oil lubrication, and insulation of the cylinder in order to maintain the high temperatures necessary for maximum efficiency.
At this time, Watt was the partner of the British inventor John Roebuck, who had financed his researches. In 1775, however, Roebuck's interest was taken over by British manufacturer Matthew Boulton, owner of the Soho Engineering Works at Birmingham, and he and Watt began the manufacture of steam engines. Watt continued his research and patented several other important inventions, including the rotary engine for driving various types of machinery; the double-action engine, in which steam is admitted alternately into both ends of the cylinder; and the steam indicator, which records the steam pressure in the engine. He retired from the firm in 1800 and thereafter devoted himself entirely to research work.
The misconception that Watt was the actual inventor of the steam engine arose from the fundamental nature of his contributions to its development. The centrifugal or flyball governor, which he invented in 1788, and which automatically regulated the speed of an engine, is of particular interest today. It embodies the feedback principle of a servomechanism, linking output to input, which is the basic concept of automation. The electrical unit, the watt, was named in his honor. Watt was also a renowned civil engineer, making several surveys of canal routes. He invented, in 1767, an attachment that adapted telescopes for use in measurement of distances. Watt coined the term horsepower. Watt died in Heathfield, England, on August 19, 1819. By the time he died, he'd changed history and was the most honored engineer who had ever lived.