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Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, craftsmen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, revolutionized the industrial era. Newcomen was born in 1663 and died in 1729. Watt was born in 1736 and died in 1819. Feeding off of each other’s ideas, together they produced the steam engine. Thomas Newcomen engineered the idea of atmospheric pressure to create an engine using steam (Rolt). Later, when studying at Glasgow University, Watt came across the university’s model of Newcomen’s steam engine and further researched the idea of steam after Professor Robison suggested using steam for a wheel carriage. Watt, never having researched steam before, learned french and italian to read the books on steam (Carnegie). Both Newcomen and Watt came from a family with great history. Newcomen’s great grandfather, Thomas Newcomen, was known for his prize winning vessel. His father, Elias, also a merchant, was a trader (Rolt). Watt’s grandfather, Thomas Watt, founded a school of mathematics and was one of the first citizens of Greenock. His father, a craftsmen too, lost a ship and thus spent his life devoted to teaching James the trade of being a craftsmen. His father taught him to build different mathematical instruments. Agnes Muirhead, Watt’s mother, having lost most of her children previous to Watt, educated Watt at home as a precaution to keeping him safe. Because of Watt’s education being confined to his bedroom, he learned skills not learned in grammar school. He had an interest in learning all trades and sought out all knowledge unfamiliar to him(Carnegie). Lord Jeffrey describes Watt’s accumulation of knowledge by saying,

He never appeared, therefore, to be at all encumbered or perplexed with the verbiage of the dull books he perused or the idle talk he listened; but to have at once extracted, by a kind of intellectual alchemy, all that was worthy of attention, and to have reduced it, for his own use, to its true value and its simplest form. And thus it often happened that a great deal more was learned...than an ordinary student... (Carnegie 203)

This illustrates that Watt desired to continuously learn. Watt left home at the age of seventeen to study under Dr. Dick, professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow. To be an apprentice, Watt was supposed to study for seven years but refused as he could learn the same amount of material in one year. After taking a break due to sickness, Watt returned to Glasgow to be the first instrument maker. as he had the skills he learned from his father. Dr. Dick employed him for five pounds to repair mathematical instruments. Later after discovering Newcomen’s steam engine model, Watt began researching the steam engine. In 1761, Watt began developing his own steam engine model. This model was more steam efficient than Newcomen’s model. Aside from the steam engine, Watt developed several other inventions (Carnegie). Newcomen and Watt’s work can be seen in higher education today. People advance their education by attending college to do an in-depth study on a particular topic instead of a variety of topics as learned in primary and secondary education. Watt wanting to expand his knowledge on his craftsmen work, studied at a university. The concept of the university is to study closely under faculty to do extensive research. Instead of attending classes, Watt designed experiments under the direction of professors. This also is seen in universities. Watt exhibited a practical approach to his studies. He accumulated information and determined a practical use for the knowledge learned, similar to sociological determinism. Sociological determinism is creating the technology necessary to fulfill a desire (Jackson). Watt’s study of the science of harmonics in order to help him build an organ is an example. He sought to build an organ than found a method how.

The concept of having a practical purpose for all learned knowledge is seen in higher education because students are taught to apply the concepts they learn to situations outside of the classroom, demonstrating the reason students attend college which is to learn skills to apply to a career after school. In addition to independent study and applying concepts learned to practical situations, Watt developed the copying press (Carnegie). The copying press is important to the university and higher education. The copying press allowed for papers to not have to be hand-written multiple times. Without the copying press, Watt’s drawings for the steam engine models, nor could scholarly works have been published. In the university professors pass out papers, the professor would have to hand-write multiple copies if it were not for the copying press. The ideal higher education is to do independent study with a professor. Students should also be able to have a practical use for the knowledge they are learning. Meanwhile, being able to copy papers is useful to professors. Newcomen and Watt’s research to develop a steam engine that could move water by changing it’s state and converting energy, expanded into research and learning methods used today in universities and higher education.

The development of the steam engine came from Watt’s persistence in furthering his accumulation of knowledge in the university setting. Newcomen and Watt both were inspired by the steam from a tea kettle. The steam engine was an invention to convert energy and the state of water. The original purpose was to help move water out of mines which were flooding. Thomas Newcomen used the previous work by Thomas Savery and to create a steam engine where atmospheric pressure was applied. A vacuum worked with a cylinder by condensing the steam. This model was inefficient because it was open thus the steam was being released. Watt, after discovering Professor Black’s theory of latent heat, determined that water is a compound and not an element that existed in three states. He determined this by heating the water until it reached 212 degrees where steam will rise. He experimented by adding pressure to the steam before blowing it onto the water and discovered that no matter the weight, the temperature will still raise by the same amount. This led to his steam engine model, by increasing the pressure of steam by enclosing the cylinder, the pump will be more efficient in blowing off steam. Lauder describes Watt’s use of steam as a natural energy to create a pump. He says

Now to us who live on the earth there is only one source of power-the sun. Darken the sun and every engine on the earth’s surface would soon stop...Deducting the atmospheric absorption, it is still true that the sun delivers on each square yard of the earth’s surface, when he is shining, the equivalent of one horse-power working continuously. Enough mechanical power goes to waste on the college campus to warm and light and supply all the manufactories, street railroads and other consumers of mechanical power in the city. (Carnegie 49).

This demonstrates Watt’s conservation of using the sources available to him. He uses the heat of the sun to heat water until it turns into steam. The sun provides more energy than one horse-power will. If people relied on natural energy instead of energy produced by man, then more work can be done. Using available resources to complete a task is symbolic to higher education today. There are several resources at a university to help students with their studies. If students use the available resources, then they will be able to further their education. One available resource to the student is the professors. Professors have advanced degrees in their subject and can teach students about the topic as long as help the student research. The professors can also help the student connect with businesses to help them in the future. An education is worth what the student puts into it. Watt uses not only his natural resources but he also studies closely under professors to help guide him in his experiments. He learns different skills to be able to work as a optician or instrument maker while he waits for patents on his steam engine models. For example, when he first moved to Glasgow he became an optician until he was able to further his education. Watt also learned as much as possible in a short time. He did not want to take seven years learning material, he knew was possible to learn in one year. He wanted to save time so that he would have time to learn new knowledge. If Watt had not continuously sought new knowledge, he would not have learned enough to build the steam engine. He accomplished everything he desired. In higher education, students can accomplish any task as long as they take the time to study and do the work. Persistence in studying improves education and helps fulfill goals.

There is a use for all knowledge learned as Watt demonstrates in his studies. Watt patented six items. Four of these patents were for the steam engine. The first patent was for the efficiency of steam on January 5, 1769 in his partnership with Roebuck. Roebuck paid the Watt’s debts and helped provide money for Watt’s experiments. In 1770, Watt moved to partner with Boulton instead. He invented the screw propeller while working on the canals. The screw propeller was invented with the purpose of moving boats through the canal. In 1782, Watt added two new patents on the design of his steam engine. He designed steam for the use of locomotives. Using Stephenson’s railway model, he added steam. This allowed for a faster mode of transportation. When Watt first journeyed to Glasgow, the trip was twelve days on horseback. Now with the steam engine, the trip would only take eight hours (Carnegie). All these were invented because of the knowledge Watt had accumulated. Lord Jeffrey describes Watt’s sorting of knowledge that was of practical use by saying “...his power of digesting and arranging in its proper place all the information eh received, and of casting aside and rejecting, as it were instinctively, whatever was worthless or immaterial” (Carnegie 231). He learned about the compounds that make up water to help him to understand the three states being gas, liquid and solid. He used this knowledge and put it to use to improve the steam engine. After learning about how to create circular motion, he combined it with his knowledge of steam to produce a circular motion of wheels (Carnegie). This idea of learning material and putting it to use can be applied to higher education. When communication of knowledge first started, there were four steps. These four steps were acquisition of new knowledge, manipulation to discover new things, distribution, and archiving of truths (Jackson).

Students are able to understand and remember information when they make connections to the knowledge. If one hears information but has no use for it, they are less likely to remember it than if they have a purpose for it or tell others. The university is set up to allow students to perform the knowledge they have learned. Carnegie states universities are “where any man can study everything worth studying” (36). This illustrates that a student should be able to study any subject they choose at the university. Several majors in the university today have practicums where the students do research with the professor or go out and work in the field they have been studying to demonstrate what they learned. The students are able to see how they can apply the knowledge to their lives. Gustafson says, “Watt understood (if only implicitly) that principles are man’s means of organizing his experiences; and that a principle that is detached from its particulars is meaningless and useless (New England Objectivist Society).” This illustrates that not connecting information learned to an experience will not be remembered. In higher education, students study concepts that they want to apply to their careers. Watt’s practical approach to his learning is the precursor to the classes in the university.

Newcomen and Watt contributed to higher education today. Watt complained that there was a lack of skilled workmen to build his engine. Carnegie claimed that the difference between Watt’s steam engine and excellence was the skills of the workmen. While partnered with Boulton, they created the first Benefit Society of Workmen. The workers did the work according to the wages they earned. They were also honored with a dinner from Boulton and Watt. This lead to engineers being trained in the university because Watt discovered that people lacked the skills to work on steam engines. In 1780, Watt created the copying press. The copying press was designed to copy writing that had been written in the past twenty-four hours. This allowed Watt to not have to redraw his designs to send out to be built. It saved him time by only having to draw his designs once (Carnegie). This invention led to more advanced models of the copying machine. Prior to the copying press was the the printing press. The printing press, designed by Gutenberg in the 15th century, connected with Watt’s steam engine was able to mass produce textbooks which allowed knowledge to spread past the university (The Printing Press). More people learned to read and became literate which allowed them to learn other skills. The copying machine is used today in education. Students are able to print off papers and copy sources needed to study. Without copy machines, professors would not be able to give hand outs to the class. Newcomen and Watt also have influenced educational societies. The International Society for the History of Engineering and Technology is named after Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine contribution (Newcomen Society). When Watt and Boulton did not renew their partnership, they passed it to their sons. Their sons formed the scientific library in Greenock in 1816 which contains more than 15,000 volumes of books. The Watt Prize was founded by Watt in 1809 in Glasgow University to support future students studying natural philosophy and chemistry. These contributions have ensured that future generations can continue to learn.

James Watt perfected the steam engine that Thomas Newcomen invented. This advanced science as Watt learned how steam can be used to provide energy. His studies furthered as he searched for new knowledge on steam but learned other concepts in the process of doing so. Watt continuously sought to learn more and that progressed into the ideal students in the universities today. Students attend universities to learn more about a particular subject. Not only did Watt learn new knowledge, he applied the concepts to daily life. By applying knowledge to daily routines, people remember the information as it is a way of communication. Not only are they applying the knowledge to their life, but they are showing others what they learned too. By demonstrating their knowledge, others are learning the knowledge and will be able to tell more people. Sharing the information helps keep the knowledge from being lost. If Watt had not applied the principles of water as a compound to the steam engine, then future generations would not know until someone else discovered it. Watt provided a way to communicate newly learned information in mass by creating the copying press. Information could be shared by duplicating handwritten work so more people could see. These concepts shape the basis for studying at a university. Newcomen and Watt forged how students obtain knowledge in higher education.



Newcomen and Watt Illustrate Learning Techniques


Page Author: Emily Peters

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 10:15



Carnegie, Andrew. James Watt,. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1905. Print.

Gustafson, Mike. "James Watt as the Embodiment of Francis Bacon's Philosophy." New England Objectivist Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2013. ##<http:// the-embodiment-of-francis-bacons-philosophy/>.

Jackson, Steve. "Greek Enlightenment." The University. Central Washington University, Ellensburg. 15 Jan. 2013. Lecture.

"The Newcomen Society." For the Study of the History of Engineering and Technology » History, Aims and Objectives. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2013. ##<http://>.

"The Printing Press." The Printing Press. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2013. <>.

Rolt, L. T., and J. S. Allen. The Steam Engine of Thomas Newcomen. Hartington, Eng.: Moorland Pub., 1977. Print.


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