eureka moments

The core of Josiah Wedgwood’s circle was completed by the two who had, perhaps, the greatest worldly success- Matthew Boulton and James Watt- and by the one who has been credited with the least, Wedgwood’s partner, Thomas Bentley. The contrast between Boulton and Watt was marked. Boulton was the natural autocrat. Distinguished in looks and dignified in bearing, he immediately suggested the kingly. Yet unlike his silent partner he was amiable, confident and outward going. As Watt wrote, his “active and snaguine disposition served to counterbalance the despondency and diffidence which were natural to me.”

—James Watt depicted as a young man working with his Newcomen engine, by James Eckford Lauder (1855). Photograph: The Bridgeman Art Library—Read More:

As a team however, the functioned superbly and Boulton deserves as much credit as Watt for the success of the steam engine. He risked his capital- and that of his friends- to make, market, promote, and distribute an invention which many men regarded as unsalable.

Bentley was completely different. His fame rests on personal charm, the most perishable of historical evidence and the most easily lost. His name now surfaces only occasionally in the pages of history and his usual haunt is in the footnotes. Lacking the distinguishing label of accomplishment, he has survived only as an adjunct to the great, but he was Wedgwood’s closest friend and as such he was an integral part of the Midland group.

—The image is meant to depict the Constitutional Society of Birmingham that held a ‘French Revolution Dinner’ at Birmingham’s Hotel to commemorate the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1791. The event has been transformed into a satirical cartoon by James Gillray, representing the London viewpoint of the riots and containing a number of false embelishments, one being that Joseph Priestley (standing, second from left) did not attend the dinner at the Hotel, nor did many of the others shown (see below) who lived a good distance from Birmingham. The dinner had caused a stir amongst some of Birmingham’s inhabitants who believed that those attending were unpatriotic, and who had been antagonised by a seditious hand-bill that had been distributed a few days before the dinner, though all at the dinner denied any connection with it. But this was before France’s King had been executed (which occured in January 1793), and before the full bloody violence of the revolution had truly begun.—Read More:

Along with Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Day, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, such were the diverse characters who made up the hardcore of Wedgwood’s circle of friends. Others equally fascinating collected on the fringe: Anna Seward, the Swan of Lichfield, seeking solace for the unrequited love in her poetry and the company of the great, collected rare and interesting people with the avidity of a big game hunter and entertained her captures at Lichfield like an eighteenth-century Mme Verdurin; Joseph Priestley, the strange gifted scientist, his mercurial mind flitting from science to politics like an excited moth, who eventually had to flee to America from the fury of the Birmingham mob; James Keir, “a mighty chemist and a very agreeable man,” who translated Macquer’s Dictionary of Chemistry; and the kindly Dr. William Small, who experimented in chemistry and, pandering to Day’s taste for women with long petticoats and large white arms, scoured the Midlands to find him a suitable mate.


(see link at end)…William Rosen, I am pleased to say, shares my enthusiasm for Watt’s inspiration. As he states in this intriguing, witty account of the birth of steam power, the inventor’s walk on Glasgow Green was “one of the best recorded, and most repeated, eureka moments since Archimedes leaped out of his bathtub.” However, we should note, precisely, what Watt achieved on that stroll. He certainly did not invent the steam engine. That had already been done. Nor, adds Rosen, should we take seriously those stories of the great inventor’s childhood fascination with steam pushing aside kettle lids.

In fact, Watt was less interested in the power of steam to push than he was in its ability to create a vacuum that could pull. In 1765, he was working on a Newcomen pump, a state-of-the-art engine in which steam pushed a piston through a cylinder. Water was then sprayed into the cylinder, causing the steam to condense, creating a vacuum behind the piston which was sucked back to its original position. More steam was pumped in, and the piston was pushed forward again.

However, constantly heating and then cooling the engine’s huge cylinder was incredibly inefficient. Up to three-quarters of the engine’s steam was wasted this way, Watt calculated. He dreamed up all sorts of solutions, none of them feasible, until his epiphany on Glasgow Green. A separate condenser would create a vacuum but allow the engine’s cylinder to operate at a constant temperature, he realised. Steam power was transformed.

It took a remarkable confluence of ideas to prepare the ground for the breakthrough, however. These included: changes to British patent laws which provided effective protection for those who came up with money-earning ideas; philosopher John Locke’s arguments that man has rights to property wher

bour had been added; pioneering work on early steam engines by Savery, Newcomen and Papin; the discovery of latent heat by Watt’s Glasgow University friend Joseph Black; and the ability to make industrial devices of real precision.Read More:

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