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March 22, 2011

Harnessing Nature’s Power – James Watt & The Steam Age

by quaesitor

It was slightly surreal – an invitation to a mere blogger, who occasionally and with the reckless confidence that comes only from profound ignorance, dabbles in the realm of science. I guess it was because of past raves about books like The Age of Wonder and God’s Philosophers that someone somewhere had the random idea of inviting me to the press opening of the Science Museum’s new James Watt Exhibition this morning. So I duly pitched up, enjoyed my complimentary coffee and croissant and circulated with the best of them. I listened with interest as the museum boss and then celeb-historian Adam Hart-Davis gave us their three-penny’orth. And then wandered around the new displays – just off to the left of the main Energy Hall on the ground floor – a full 24 hours before it opens to the public tomorrow.

And in the brief time that I could be there, it was great. So I guess if someone goes as the result of this little post, their punt was worth it. The centrepiece is the installation of Watt’s home workshop exactly as he left it when he died in 1819. The Science Museum had gained it, lock stock and barrel, in 1924 – and now it is cleverly set up so that one can walk into it and glimpse the place where this great engineering mind spent his days in retirement. It’s full of bric-a-brac gathered from a life of relentless enquiry and experiment – what Hart-Davis amusingly described as junk – and what fascinating junk it is (it includes the first ever circular saw apparently). The advantage of being a press opening is that we could go behind the glass and look around the exhibit (under watchful eyes of course). Check out one or two snaps I took.

An Industrial And Imperial Catalyst

So what’s the big deal? Well, James Watt (1736-1819) was clearly a genius. This little BBC slide show gives a great intro. But his era is as important for understanding him as his own achievements. As the sight of a woman wandering around (having just stepping off the set of Sense and Sensibility) reminded us, this was the pre-industrial age. Britain had imperial ambition but had lost the American colonies. But it was a period of rapid scientific endeavour (as for example The Age of Wonder so brilliantly describes).

And one of the key catalysts of the Industrial Revolution (and thus Britain’s growing and disproportionate global dominance) was James Watt. To put it crudely, our continued (albeit less dominant) wealth today is in large part due to Watt’s impact on the nineteenth century. Perhaps that is why Watt and his business partner Matthew Boulton will appear on the new £50 note coming out later this year.

The Engineering Hero

But as the exhibition well illustrated, Watt was regarded as a new type of hero – not military, literary or artistic (although he was certainly interested in the latter of the 3) – but a hero who applied his mind to practical problems. He was the first engineer to be memorialised in Westminster Abbey, complete with statue and all (though this was subsequently removed for some reason and replaced by a bust). And as this James Lauder print below illustrates (which is in the exhibition), he is endowed with the same mystique that Joseph Wright of Derby (one of my all time favourite artists) gave to other Enlightenment-era scientists a generation before.

Of course, Watt didn’t invent the steam engine. But he did change everything by working out how to make it work with far greater power and efficiency. And thus removed our dependence on coal or water power. The age of steam gave birth to the age of industry – the impact was unprecedented. The myth-making grew with great intensity – thus numerous print were made of the legend of Watt in childhood experimenting with a kettle (ie the born genius whose rise was inevitable) under the rather scornful eye of an aunt. But what was especially interesting to me was seeing one of these side by side with an image from a Japanese textbook depicting precisely the same moment, albeit in Asian style.

To grasp why all this is so significant, this remark, presented in one of the displays, by Watt’s partner Boulton seemed to me to encapsulate the point.

I sell … what all the world desires: Power!

Boulton and Watt thus formed the perfect partnership – business and scientific acumen in equal measure. And the world never looked back.

Putting us in our place

But I couldn’t help but contemplate one legacy of all this – the shadow of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. It is on a continuum of our relentless quest to harness the power of the natural world. It was a grim irony that the incredible potency of such plants proved all too fragile when they were overwhelmed by even greater forces – those of tectonic plates and the waves.

Of course you can hardly blame Watt for that – that would obviously be absurd. And my appreciation for the man and his abilities was significantly deepened by this exhibit. (To discover more go to the official site or the BBC slideshow).

It’s just that, for all our remarkable advances at harnessing and diverting forces far greater than our own natural strengths (rather like a martial arts expert using an opponent’s strengths against him), the natural world has an uncanny knack for restoring us to our rightful place of humility. As does the one who made it all. I fully realise this raises more questions than it answers – but it is no accident that this comes at the climax of a book whose primary purpose is to tackle those questions head on – the Book of Job. As Yahweh launches into his own questioning, he famously says:

Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? (Job 38:2-5)

… Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’? (38:8-9)

… Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death?
Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this. (38:16-18)

I don’t fully understand how this all works out. And the events in Japan (as in fact should every major natural disaster) surely puncture any attempts at glib answers. But then isn’t that precisely the Book of Job’s point? To leave us with a deep degree of mystery and perplexity, whilst simultaneously pointing us to the possibility of a divine goodness and mercy.

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