256 years ago this month, James Watt made the conceptual breakthrough that enabled a much more efficient steam engine…an engine that would play a major role in driving the Industrial Revolution. He had been thinking about possibilities for improving the coal-hungry Newcomen engine, then the best available, which lost huge amounts of heat every cycle through the successive heating and cooling of the cylinder walls:
It was in the Green of Glasgow. I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon…I was thinking upon the engine at the time…when the idea came into my mind, that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication was made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder.
But in addition to the many details involved in reducing this idea to practice, there was another problem inhibiting the creation of reasonably-efficient steam engines. The boring of the cylinders…even when the best tools and the highest skills of the day were applied…was so imprecise that considerable quantities of steam escaped around the piston, greatly lowering the overall efficiency of the engine.
Enter Matthew Boulton, who became Watt’s partner, and John Wilkinson, a Boulton associate and foundry operator who was obsessed with all things cast iron. Boulton and Wilkinson wanted a steam engine to provide the blast for Wilkinson’s foundry, and they wanted an engine with especially-large cylinders…which made the problem of tight cylinder/piston fit even harder to solve.
Wilkinson saw that the technology he had already developed for the very precise boring of cannon could, with some modifications, be adapted to the boring of steam engine cylinders. Amid “searing heat and grinding din,” he achieved a cylinder, four feet in diameter, which “does not err the thickness of an old shilling at any part.” With the combination of Watt’s separate condenser and Wilkinson’s improved boring process, the steam engine was ready for the starring role that it was to hold for the next century and beyond.
Key point: It wasn’t only the design of the improved steam engine that mattered, but also the process for making it.
What if Britain had been offshoring its foundry operations, with their “searing heat and grinding din” to another country? Spain, let’s say. Given the importance of the interaction between the design talent and the manufacturing talent, would the improved steam engine have been developed in the 1770s timeframe at all? And whenever it had been developed, to which individuals and countries would the financial benefits of steam power have accrued?
The present-day parallel is the relationship between microchip designers and microchip manufacturing facilities…foundries, as they are actually called.
More about John Wilkinson, here.