James Watt’s ingenious improvements to the steam engine transformed this relatively simple technology, making it more efficient and adapting it so it could be used to turn wheels. His ideas revolutionised steam power, literally driving the industrial revolution and transforming the British landscape and the lives of its people.

The first commercially successful steam engine was the ‘atmospheric engine’, developed around the early 1700s by Thomas Newcomen. It was designed to pump water and mainly used in mines and, in some areas, to pump municipal water supplies.

While working at Glasgow University, James Watt (1736 – 1819) was asked to repair a model Newcomen steam engine. Realising the engine was extremely inefficient, he developed a revolutionary new design that would help a steam engine run faster and use less fuel. The trick was to separate out the process of condensing the steam, so that the whole cylinder did not need to be cooled down which had wasted heat.

Having no money to turn his design into a working engine, James Watt gained support from local industrialist John Roebuck and he patented his design in 1769. When Roebuck went bankrupt in 1773, he introduced Watt to Birmingham entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, a successful businessman and manufacturer. Using Watt’s designs, they went into partnership in 1775 and began manufacturing the first Boulton & Watt steam engines. They were joined two years later by William Murdoch who played a pivotal role in supplying and installing the engines in mines and factories all over Britain and the wider world.

Watt went on to further refine his revolutionary design, so that Boulton & Watt steam engines could not only efficiently pump water, but drive machinery in paper, cotton, flour and iron mills, textile factories, distilleries, canals, waterworks and even drive an early steam locomotive.

This Boulton & Watt engine was built in 1786 to pump water for the Barclay & Perkins Brewery in Southwark, London. It was refined in 1796 so that it could also grind barley. At this time, Boulton & Watt were the only suppliers of engines capable of ‘double actions’ like this.

Did you know..?

James Watt and Matthew Boulton featured on the English fifty-pound note from 2011 – 2019. This was the first time that two historic figures had appeared on a note together.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.