Science Studies: James Watt & the Steam Engine

James Watt was a Scottish inventor and engineer best known for his role in the advancement of steam technology.

Read the following:

“James Watt and the Invention of the Steam Engine”

  • Map the following (you’ll find mapping resources below):
    • Scotland
    • Greenock (Glasgow), Scotland where Watt was born
    • England
    • Birmingham, England, where Watt died at his home “Heathfield” (referred to incorrectly as “Hearthfield” in the book)
  • Learn about life before the steam engine at John’s Model Steam Engine Museum.
  • When the book was written, steam power was still used for many things we use internal combustion engines for today. Make a list of the ways steam was used, as mentioned in the book.
  • What do you think James Watt was really doing when his aunt caught him playing with the kettle?
  • What could Watt do with a small forge and workbench of his own? Read about blacksmithing of the 18th century at to get an idea.
  • What does it mean to be a “jack of all trades”? Up to more recent times, the phrase had a positive connotation. However, there is a figure of speech that goes “jack of all trades, master of none.” What do you think that means? Would that apply to Watt?
  • How did Watt become known as a man “who knew much and who could make anything”?
  • View a picture of how a windlass was used in a mine.
  • Name some of the problems that occurred when using a windlass in a mine.
  • View a picture of Branca’s steam engine.
  • View a picture of Papin’s steam engine at the Museum of American Heritage.
  • Learn more about Denis Papin.
  • View a picture of Newcomen’s steam engine.
  • List some of the problems with Newcomen’s steam engine.
  • What problems did Watt see with Newcomen’s steam engine?
  • List the improvements Watt made to Newcomen’s engine.
  • Compare and contrast Newcomen’s atmospheric engine and Watt’s steam engine.
  • Explain how an engine governor works.
  • List the ways the steam engine was of use in mining.
  • List the ways the steam engine was of use in mills.
  • View a picture of “Heathfield,” Watt’s home in England.
  • View a picture of Watt’s workroom at Heathfield at the Victoria and Albert Museum, untouched since his death.
  • Create a simple timeline showing the major events in Watt’s life.
  • List several characteristics of Watt that helped him to succeed. [Worked until he became skillful at what he did. Spent his leisure time reading, learning all he could. Everything he did not understand was subject for study until he understood it. Persistence.]

More about James Watt and the steam engine from the Book of Knowledge:

The first true steam engine that had a cylinder and piston was a device to operate a pump. It was patented in 1705 by Thomas Newcomen, an English blacksmith, and his partner, John Cawley. In the 1760’s and afterward, James Watt, a Scottish engineer, improved Newcomen’s engine in many ways and produced the first modern type of double-acting steam engine.

The energy for boiling water to make steam can come from any kind of fuel — coal, wood, oil or atomic fission materials. As steam becomes hotter, it tries to spread out and escape from its container. If it can’t do this, it presses with growing force against all sides of its container until something gives way, or until it loses energy.

In a steam engine, compressed steam rushes from a boiler into one end of a tube called a cylinder. The only way it can expand is by pushing against the head of a piston inside the cylinder; so it drives the piston to the far end of the cylinder until it has spent its strength. More live steam then enters the cylinder on the other side of the piston and drives it back to where it started.

A double-acting engine in which a piston is driven back and forth in this way is called a reciprocating engine. Attached to the piston is a rod that slides back and forth with it. It is this piston rod that is useful in so many ways. By hooking it to a wheel with a crank, the back-and-forth motion can be turned into rotary (around and around) motion. That is how the big driving wheels of a steam locomotive are turned….

Engines run by steam are called external combustion engines because the fuels are burned outside the cylinder itself.

“Familiar Things,” The Book of Knowledge
Further Investigation

James Watt
Biography from the BBC.

James Watt
More extensive biography from the Magnet Lab at Florida State University.

James Watt
Brief biography and helpful timeline from the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame.

James Watt
About the statue in Westminster Abbey with brief biography.

Brief History of the Steam Engine
Nicely illustrated summary from the College of Engineering at Michigan State University.

The Newcomen Steam Engine
Fascinating look at the history from Professor Mark Csele.

Dreams of Steam
The history of steam from the Museum of American Heritage.


Newcomen Atmospheric Engine
Simple interactive animation at

Watt Beam Engine
Simple interactive animation also at

James Watt’s Condenser Experiment
Interactive animation that helps students understand how it works.
(You may want to install an ad blocker before viewing.)

Steam Machine
PBS interactive where you control the steam.

Trading Card Creator
Interactive tool at that can be used as a narration tool.


James Watt by Andrew Carnegie
Biography in the public domain.

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

Finding Horsepower
Lesson plan at that explores the term (invented by James Watt) and what it means practically.

Energy Basics
Lesson plan covering energy, work, and power (which is measured in watts!).

The Steam Locomotive: A Unit Study

The Steam Locomotive: A Unit Study
Our own unit covering one of the many ways the steam engine changed the way we do things. Fun rabbit trail if you have time.

Internal Combustion Engine: A Unit Study
The next step after the external combustion (steam) engine. Another rabbit trail for those interested.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Map of the United Kingdom
At PAT for locating Scotland, England, Birmingham, and Glasgow.

James Watt’s Steam Engine
Illustration for notebook.

James Watt and the Steam Engine Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.

Enjoy the entire series:
Free Science Studies: Great Inventors & Their Inventions
Free Science Studies: Great Inventors & Their Inventions

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