James Watt: Master of the Steam Engine

Chapter X.
James Watt

James Watt.
Statue by Chantrey. Erected 1832.

In the year 1818—three years after the battle of Waterloo—there was assembled a distinguished party in Edinburgh, at which Sir Walter Scott, James Watt (then in his eighty-second year), and others were present. Sir Walter thus writes: “There were assembled about half-a-score of our Northern lights. Amid the company stood Mr. Watt, the man who discovered the means of multiplying our resources to a degree perhaps beyond his own stupendous powers of calculation and combination, bringing the treasure of the abyss to the summit of the earth; giving the feeble arm of man the momentum of an afrite, commanding manufactures to rise as the rod of the prophet produced water in the desert, affording the means of dispensing with that time and tide which wait for no man, and of sailing without that wind which defied the threats of Xerxes himself. This potent commander of the elements — this abridger of time and space—this magician whose cloudy machinery has produced a change in the world, the effects of which, extraordinary as they are, are perhaps now only beginning to be felt, was not only the most profound man of science — the most successful combiner of powers and calculator of numbers as applied to practical purposes—was not only one of the most generally well-informed, but one of the kindest of human beings. There he stood, surrounded by the little band I have mentioned of Northern literati — men not less tenacious of their own fame and their own opinions than the national regiments are supposed to be jealous of the high character which they have won upon service. Methinks I yet see and hear what I shall never see or hear again. In his eighty-second year, the alert, kind, benevolent old man had his attention alive to every one’s question, his information at every one's command. His talents and fancy overflowed on every subject. One gentleman was a deep philologist,—he talked with him on the origin of the alphabet as if he had been coeval with Cadmus. Another, a celebrated critic, you could have thought he had studied political economy and belles lettres all his life. Of science it is unnecessary to speak. It was his own distinguished walk.”

Such was the man at 82, the year before he died. His extraordinary career, which has had a greater effect upon the


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