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Smeaton vs Watt: the race to improve the steam engine

28 March 2024

ICE Past President Gordon Masterton explores the rivalry between John Smeaton and James Watt.

Smeaton vs Watt: the race to improve the steam engine
James Watt (left) and John Smeaton (right) were both experimenting with improvements to the Newcomen ‘fire engine’. Image credit: ICE Library

Between 1770 and 1772, John Smeaton devoted himself to improving the efficiency of the Newcomen engines used mainly for raising water from mines.

He had designed and built a pumping engine on the Newcomen principles for the New River Head pond at Islington in 1767 to satisfy increased demand for water supply to London.

But he was disappointed with the results, and in typical Smeaton fashion, he applied his experimental approach to the problem.

He built an experimental engine at his home in Austhorpe, Leeds and made 130 tests varying one factor at a time.

Smeaton's experimental engine. Image credit: ICE Library
Smeaton's experimental engine. Image credit: ICE Library

As a result, he could optimise:

  • piston loading;
  • valve timing;
  • the form of injection nozzle;
  • insulating the piston;
  • use of hot-well tank as a feed-water heater; and
  • different types of coals.

But Smeaton wasn’t the only one working on this.

The competitor from the North

Meanwhile, in Scotland, a young James Watt had also been experimenting with improvements to the Newcomen ‘fire engine’.

In 1769, at the age of 32, he had registered his patent for the separate condenser and other improvements.

But his full-scale prototype at Kinneill Cottage near Bo’ness was progressing painfully slowly.

Portrait of James Watt. Image credit: ICE Library
Portrait of James Watt. Image credit: ICE Library

Smeaton meets Watt

Smeaton was aware of Watt’s patent.

He arranged a meeting with a rather star-struck James Watt by the Monkland Canal in 1770.

They discussed the principles of Watt’s patent, which may well have influenced Smeaton’s experimental programme.

Early success

Smeaton applied what he had learned to a commission for a new engine at Longbenton in Northumberland in 1772.

This was 25% more efficient than any engine built until then.

An outstanding achievement, it was the result of a thorough scientific method applied to optimising the key variables.

It was a superb example of Smeaton’s skill as an experimentalist, and he probably thought he had great prospects of selling his improved engine designs.

However, he didn’t lodge any new patents, being improvements rather than innovations.

Chacewater Mine, Cornwall

The coal to power pumping engines in Cornwall’s tin mines had to be transported from Wales, so efficiency was king.

Smeaton was commissioned to provide an engine for one of the deepest mines at Chacewater.

Because of the depth of the water required to be pumped, he needed two boilers and pumps running at the same time, the second using waste heat from the first.

It was commissioned in 1776 but struggled to keep the mine dry.

Section of Chace Water fire engine from Smeaton reports. Image credit: ICE Library
Section of Chace Water fire engine from Smeaton reports. Image credit: ICE Library

Boulton and Watt win the race

Smeaton’s leadership in steam engine design was very short-lived.

The partnership between Matthew Boulton and James Watt led to a comprehensive new patent in 1775 and engine sales from 1776.

Plus, it used a revolutionary business model that only required payment for a proportion of the fuel savings.

Watt’s engine was three times more efficient than Smeaton’s, but for a while, Smeaton believed that where coal was cheap, his might still be competitive.

In 1777, Smeaton visited Boulton and Watt’s fourth engine at Stratford-le-Bow.

Boulton wrote to Watt that he had local intelligence that he had said it was:

“a pretty engine, but it appeared to him to be too complex; but that might in some degree be owing to his not clearly understanding all ye parts.

“He gave the engineer money to drink & the consequences of that was that ye next day the engine was almost broke to pieces.”

Despite Smeaton’s somewhat grudging praise, and indirectly fuelling the thirst of the operator with terrible consequences, the race to offer the world efficient power was over.

Smeaton’s time-consuming experiments, carried out in the prime of his life, – which would’ve been transformational at any other time in the previous 50 years – came to nothing.

The final insult was the installation of a single Bouton and Watt engine at Chacewater Mine in 1778, using one of Smeaton’s two-year-old cylinders as a steam jacket (surrounds and heats a cylinder).

How did Smeaton react?

Smeaton was initially defensive of his own improvements.

In November 1776, John Wilkinson wrote to Boulton and Watt:

“The great Smeaton (I hear by several) arraigns your invention, says he has a better engine to produce on the old plan.”

An article in the ‘Newcastle Courant’ in May 1779 said:

“The superiority of the new engine, erected by Messrs Boulton and Watt, must therefore greatly promote the mining interest of this kingdom, since the proprietors of mines may save by the new improvements, a sum equal to two thirds of that usually expended in fuel.”

Newcastle Courant 15 May 1779. Image credit: ICE Library
Newcastle Courant 15 May 1779. Image credit: ICE Library

This moved Smeaton to send an anonymous letter claiming that when the Boulton and Watt royalty was added, it would make it more expensive.

His anonymity didn’t fool Boulton and Watt.

Smeaton admitted to it later in a letter to James Watt justifying why he had felt compelled to write it:

“To give engines at the same price that would save the proprietor 2/3rds of the value of all the fuel used were advantages that portended a general monopoly, & to put us all in your pockets at once.”

Friendship in later years

But by about 1782-3, Smeaton had fully conceded the superiority of the Watt improvements and appeared to enjoy a friendship with his former rivals in later years.

In 1785, he dined with Watt and Cavendish at the Royal Society, which was followed by him leading a long list of James Watt’s election supporters.

Watt would later describe Smeaton’s contribution in these words:

“In justice to him we should observe that Father Smeaton lived before Rennie, and before there were one-tenth of the artists there are now. Suum cuique, his example and precepts have made us all engineers.”

Suum cuique means ‘may all get their due’.

  • Gordon Masterton OBE DL, ICE Past President 2005-2006 and chair at ICE Panel for Historical Engineering Works