Patent of the Month December

  Illustration of a steam engine Copyright: ©

James Watt’s Steam Engine

“What is a steam engine? Let's play dumb here”, is how teacher of physics Bömmel starts his lesson in Heinrich Spoerls’ comic novel, “Die Feuerzangenbowle”. Those who want to know the details can read about it in the patent "Steam Engines &c." filed by James Watt in 1769. The Scotsman’s development made a significant contribution to improving and increasing the efficiency of the steam engines at the time. It helped the industrial revolution to triumph in the 18th century and made James Watt one of its most important pioneers. We are therefore honouring this outstanding innovation in our last article in this series by nominating GB176900913A as our patent of the Month December!

In the mid-18th century, the self-taught Watt was employed as a mechanic and instrument maker at the University of Glasgow. At the time, the steam engine (invented by Thomas Newcomen) had a low level of efficiency, meaning it required a high level of energy consumption and was also prone to failure. When Watt was commissioned to repair one such machine, he began to think intensively about ways to improve efficiency.

He realised that a large part of the energy was lost through the constant heating and cooling of the steam cylinder. To solve this problem, he developed a steam heat exchanger with which the steam is stored separately in a condenser section after condensation. However, James Watt's decisive contribution to increasing efficiency came with the introduction of the dual action principle. Previously, steam engines only worked with the difference in pressure between the steam and the ambient air. Watt introduced a cylinder with a piston that was driven by steam on both sides. This made it possible to utilise steam power far more efficiently, as the piston could work in both directions.

James Watt was not only inventive from a technical point of view, he also proved to have a knack for commercialising his innovation. He managed to enter into a partnership with the wealthy businessman Matthew Boulton, which was crucial to the market success of the steam engine. Together they further improved the design and sold their steam engines to mines, factories and other industrial plants.

By enabling the use of steam power in various areas, James Watt's development contributed significantly to the industrial revolution and became the driving force behind economic development and social change in the 18th and 19th centuries. Watt himself ended up wealthy, famous and highly respected, something not every great inventor is privileged to achieve.

The Patent & Standards Centre ends its regular Patent of the Month series with this article, but we will continue to share selected innovations with you.

Thank you for your interest, have a relaxing Christmas season and a good -full steam ahead- start into the New Year!


Patenschrift Nr. 913

WDR: S tichtag - James Watt

Deutschlandfunk: James Watt und sein Patent

W ikipedia: Die Dampfmaschine