Capital Improvements

James Watt statue

Curiously, icon of the Industrial Revolution James Watt seldom claims to have “invented” anything, rather, he claims the title “improver.” Huxley’s assertion that he was an “inventor” of time appears to be primarily a twentieth-century invention. As the Wikipedia article suggests, it seems curious to think of patents as a mode of communicating discoveries rather than essays and articles— but this was Watt’s way. Reading the 1853 “history” of Watt’s “inventions” it seems clear that the legend of the industrial revolution is cast as a myth of originality and invention rather than evolution and improvement is only in a nascent phase. The facts show that his work/research was quite social in nature, and the labeling of him as a “great man” to the exclusion of his cohort occurred relatively slowly in cultural history. Even Huxley mentions him in conjunction with an heir to his improvements, H.F. Stephens.

Watt really seems more like a skilled repairman and tinkerer than an inventor. The events narrated after his repair/improvement of the Newcomen steam engine follow a similar pattern. I was tickled by the tale of Watt and his organ (as told by Professor Robinson):

A mason-lodge in Glasgow wanted an organ. The office-bearers were acquaintances of Mr. Watt. We imagined that Mr. Watt could do anything; and, though we all knew that he did not know one musical note from another, he was asked if he could build this organ. He had repaired one, and it had amused him. He said “Yes;” but he began by building a very small one for his intimate friend Dr. Black, which is now in my possession. In doing this, a thousand things occurred to him which no organ-builder ever dreamed of, — nice indicators of the strength of the blast, regulators of it, &c. &c. He began to the great one. He then began to study the philosophical theory of music. Fortunately for me, no book was at hand but the most refined of all, and the only one that can be said to contain any theory at all,—Smith’s Harmonics. Before Mr. Watt had half finished this organ, he and I were complete masters of that most refined and beautiful theory of the beats of imperfect consonances. He found that by these beats it would be possible for him, totally ignorant of music, to tune his organ according to any system of temperament; and he did so, to the delight and astonishment of our best performers. (cix)

So, rather than just the improver of “fire engines,” Watt was a dabbler in many areas, including “perspective machines,” in Watt’s description:


The perspective machine was invented about 1765, on the following occasion. My friend Dr. James Lind, brought from India a machine invented by some English gentlemen there, —I believe a Mr. Hurst,—which consisted of a board fixed on three legs perpendicularly, upon which close to the the bottom and near the ends, were fixed two small friction wheels, upon which a horizontal ruler rested, and could be moved endwise horizontally, . . .[elaborate description of original machine] . . . This instrument very readily described perpendicular or horizontal lines, as these accorded best with its natural motions. But in diagonal or curved lines it was difficult to make the index follow them exactly, and the whole motions were heavy and embarrassing to the hand. Moreover, the instrument was heavy and too bulky.

I wished to make a machine more portable and easier in its use; and, at the suggestion of my friend Mr. John Robinson, I turned my thoughts to the double parallel ruler, an instrument then very little known and and at all used that I know of. After some meditation, I contrived the means of applying it to this purpose and making the machine extremely light and portable.

. . .The whole of the double parallelogram and its attached slips, (which were later contrived to be easily separated from the board,) were made capable of being readily folded up, so as to occupy only a small space in the box formed by the board when folded up. The sight piece also folded up, and readily found its place in the box, which also contained the screws for fixing the legs of the instrument; and the box, when shut, could be put into a great coat-pocket. The three legs were made of tinned iron, tapering, and one a little smaller than another, and formed a walking stick about four and a half feet long. (cxi-cxvii)

That the father of the industrial revolution (in elementary school textbooks, anyway) experimented with portable pantographs isn’t all that surprising, but the extent of his involvement in reproductive technologies is. To put Watt’s innovations in perspective, I need to return to Lewis Mumford, who lead me to consider all this in the first place:

This brief view of the course of the reproductive processes in art, from the wood engraving to the colored lithograph, from the photographic painting to the photograph proper, capable of being manifolded cheaply, does not take into account various subsidiary efforts in the same direction in many of the other arts, such as the reproduction of sounds, by means of the phonograph and the talking film; to say nothing of the fortunately abortive attempts of James Watt to find a mechanical means of reproducing, in the semblance of sculpture, the human form, an effort on which the inventor of the steam engine curiously wasted some of the best years of his life.

(Art and Technics, 95)

Just what Watt “invention” was Mumford on about here? I had to find out. Turns out it was the Polyglyptic Parallel-Eidograph. “The best years of his life” turn out to be his later years, because this machine is the last thing he worked on. He turned to it after giving up on inventing the first computer. Watt’s “arithmetical machine” of 1785 was never built, though he speaks of making an attempt at making it. His forward thinking attempt at stone holograms, however, had some success. I don’t know why Mumford dismisses it so cruelly.

But one engrossing occupation, nearly akin to those of his earlier, but what we can hardly call his better days, Mr Watt also found in gradually perfecting a sculpture machine: a highly ingenious invention, the idea of which was suggested to him by an implement he had seen and admired in Paris in 1802, where it was used for “tracing and multiplying the dies of medals.” He foresaw the possiblity, if only some mechancial difficulties could be overcome, of so enlarging its powers as to admit of it making in wood or the softer kinds of stone,—nay, even in marble,—copies of works of sculpture, which should be perfectly true to their originals, although of a smaller size; and the imagination of such an exploit seems to have been particularly delightful to him combining as it did some elements of more than one of his other favorite inventions.

. . .By April, 1809, he had made “considerable progress with the carving machine and it seemed necessary to christen it with a Greek name,” which to Professor Young, then the accomplished Professor of Greek at Glasgow College, he suggested might be Iconopoia, Iconurga, Iconoglypta, Aglamotopiea, Glyptes, Polyglyptes, Glyptic Machine, &c.., names to which he afterwords added those of Bust-lathe, Statue-lathe, Pantograph, Double Pantograph and Double Parallel Lathe. (ccxlii-ccxliii)

The machine was not an “abortive attempt to reproduce the human form” but rather a prototype for what would now be named a CNC lathe, and it was according to the source I found, completed:

The invention having been thus fully completed and having been publicly used by Mr. Watt in making the frequent copies of various specimens of sculpture which he, from time to time, distributed to his friends, operated, in more than one instance, to prevent patents from subsequently being taken out by others for similarly ingenious machines.

. . .The sculpture machine, —the youngest of his mechanical offspring, —the child of his old age and of his right hand,1—had always been a great favorite with its venerable progenitory; and it is not difficult to imagine the sort of charm he must have felt in thus “searching for the beautiful forms in the hearts of marbles and of bringing them out into full daylight.”

1See Gen, chap. xxxv,v.18 “His father called him Benjamin;””i.e.(adds the marginal interpretation) “the son of the right-hand” (cclii)

Watt did attempt to further push this into a machine that could carve forms from life, but never managed it. His biographer suggests that it was not necessarily a huge loss.

Only one problem, now seems to remain for such means to achieve; that, viz. of at once copying from a living model, in materials of lapidary hardness. For hitherto, in the object to be copied an inflexible surface has always been requisite, to enable the guiding point of the machine to traverse it with firmness. But even this appears to be a difficulty which may in time be overcome; possibly by the power being applied solely by the cutting tools, but their direction being regulated by a guiding point delicately moved over a soft surface, or even in air.

It is, perhaps, neither to be expected nor desired that such a process, which, however exact, must still be entirely mechanical, should ever supersede the freedom of inspiration which breathes in the works of a Praxiteles or a Phidias; any more than the angelic grace of a Raphael or a Correggio, or the glorious coloring of a Titian or a Guido, should be eclipsed by the photographic result of mere chemical action of light an a combination fo optical media.

. . .The classical “garrett” and all its mysterious contents,—the Polyglyptic Parallel-Eidograph with all its tools and models included,—have ever since been carefully preserved in the same order as when the hand and “eye of the master” were last withdrawn from them, and he crossed the threshold never to return to his work on earth. (cclv)

James Watt's Workshop