New Books in Science

Interviews with Scientists about their New Books

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episode 151: David Philip Miller, "The Life and Legend of James Watt" (U Pittsburgh Press, 2019)


For all of his fame as one of the seminal figures of the Industrial Revolution, James Watt is a person around whom many misconceptions congregate. In The Life and Legend of James Watt: Collaboration, Natural Philosophy, and the Improvement of the Steam Engine (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), David Philip Miller separates the man from the myth by detailing his numerous accomplishments and showing how the misconceptions formed. The son of a Scottish ships’ chandler, Watt demonstrated interest in both mathematics and technology at an early age. Trained in London as an instrument maker, Watt progressed into civil engineering after his return to Glasgow before turning his attention to improving the efficiency of the steam engines then in existence. His famous innovations proved enormously successful, and Watt’s development of the enhanced engines in partnership with Matthew Boulton made him wealthy enough to devote more time to scientific experimentation. As Miller demonstrates, many of Watt’s achievements were the product of collaboration rather than of a lone genius, a fact that was overshadowed by Watt’s growing reputation in his later years and the veneration of his memory after his death in 1819.

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 2019-08-13  1h11m