Innovation lessons from James Watt
I’ve been reading Watt’s Perfect Engine, by Ben Marsden, which I suppose can be described as the biography of an invention. Even allowing for the fact that it’s written from a modern perspective, it’s striking how many of the lessons resonate with contemporary innovation.
Watt, of course, did not invent the steam engine; he perfected Newcomen’s model. To do this, he needed a supremely good technical education and apprenticeship, both to understand the shortcomings of the Newcomen engine, and to provide him with the means to make a living while working on his version – which took 20 years from idea to commercial impact.
He needed access to a knowledge network (both around the Scottish universities, mostly Glasgow, and Birmingham’s ‘Lunar Men‘); access to finance (moving to increasingly better bankrolled partners, ending with Matthew Boulton); an enforceable patent; political connections, some gained through his time as a canal builder, more, again, through Boulton; technically precise machine tools (to tolerances of less than a 1/1000th); a demonstration engine (built in Boulton’s Soho, Birmingham factory); Boulton’s long-term commitment; skilled engineers, such as William Murdock, who could make the early engines work in their locations; and a willingness to try a number of different business models (from royalties on patents to payments against the cost of fuel saved by the Watt engine in comparison with the Newcomen).
There was also some clever marketing. Watt labelled engine output in ‘horsepower’ so that buyers would know what they were getting for their money, and thereby creating a competitive yardstick against other engines. And it’s also worth noting that Boulton and Watt went rapidly from innovation to technical conservatism (for example around technical issues such as steam pressure) because of the financial exposure of the company; they couldn’t risk an engine failing. Watt’s work was, emphatically, recognised in his own lifetime. There’s a story of the Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge passing a steam engine in a field.
“Wordsworth observed that it was scarcely possible to divest oneself of the impression that it had life and volition.” Coleridge replied, “Yes, it is a giant with one idea.”