James Watt as the Embodiment of Francis Bacon’s Philosophy

By Mike Gustafson

Of the various factors that contributed to the Industrial Revolution, the economic, political, geographic, technological, and historic factors have received the bulk of the attention. This paper will deal with the philosophic causes of the Industrial Revolution. Today, philosophy is viewed as a theoretical science without application to the practical problems of life; this view is certainly justified given the philosophies that dominate our culture. In the 18th century, however, philosophy was viewed as a highly practical science. Science, as we know it today, was called Natural Philosophy during the Enlightenment. The great scientists such as Henry Cavendish, Joseph Banks, Isaac Newton, et al., were called Natural Philosophers. Contrary to today’s view of philosophy, the Enlightenment intellectuals understood that philosophic knowledge was a prerequisite to solving the practical problems of life.

The recognition of the power of philosophy was unique to the Enlightenment. The post-modern view that philosophy is impractical existed before the Enlightenment as well. The champion of the power of philosophy was Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon rejected the Scholastic philosophy, which preceded him, because it was divorced from practical application. He held that knowledge is power—which means, the production of material goods flows directly from scientific discoveries. While it is possible to trace Bacon’s influence throughout the Enlightenment—such as his influence on the English Royal Society and on Diderot’s Encyclopédie—this paper will take a much narrower and simpler approach. I will demonstrate the influence of Bacon’s philosophy by describing the character of a man who perfectly embodied it—James Watt. By giving a concrete, real-life example of Bacon’s philosophy—the character of James Watt—I hope to demonstrate Bacon’s influence.

In the beginning of the 18th century, many inventions had already begun to improve man’s standard of living. The men behind those inventions, however, only knew “how things worked and not why they worked. Explanations were to come later, and with them a natural acceleration of both improvement and fresh invention.”[1] For example, Thomas Newcomen had created a steam engine that utilized the available knowledge of steam. He did not seek to understand the nature of steam himself; rather, he was more interested in creating an engine based on the existing knowledge. It was not until Joseph Black and James Watt had (independently) discovered the nature of Latent Heat that the steam engine was greatly improved. Newcomen was a mere inventor, but Watt was both a scientist and an inventor. James Watt was perhaps the first real engineer who applied scientific principles to his inventions.[2] A friend of Watt’s, Mr. Lauder, describes how Watt was both an Inventor and a Discoverer. In “Watt’s Discoveries of the Properties of Steam,” Lauder remarks on how Watt was determined to understand the principles of steam power: “The spirit of enquiry was in possession of him, and he had to find out all he could about the nature of steam.”[3] By the end of the 18th century, applied science had become “the link between science and industry.”[4]

The trend towards scientific knowledge as a prerequisite of practical invention has its roots in Bacon’s philosophy. Bacon held that in order to produce an effect one must first understand the cause. He famously declared, “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule.”[5] This simple aphorism contains a major aspect of Watt’s character; namely, that in order to command nature, he knew that he must discover the principles that lay hidden beneath the surface. He knew that in order to produce an efficient steam engine, he must discover the cause of steam power.

Before Watt’s time, for example, once the cause of the movement of a piston was determine to be related to pressure, the pressure from steam (and negative pressure from evacuated steam) could be used to move a piston. In respect to Watt himself, for example, once he discovered that the cause of wasted steam power in Newcomen’s engine was the re-heating of the piston, he was able to produce a separate condenser to increase its efficiency four-fold. Sir Humphrey Davy precisely described how Watt first sought after the cause of steam power:

“Mr. Watt’s improvements were not produced by accidental circumstances or by a single ingenious thought; they were founded on delicate and refined experiments, connected with the discoveries of Dr. Black. He had to investigate the cause [italics mine] of the cold produced by evaporation, of the heat occasioned by the condensation of steam—to determine the source of the air appearing when water was acted upon by an exhausting power; the ratio of the volume of steam to its generating water, and the law by which the elasticity of steam increased with temperature; labor, time, numerous and difficult experiments, were required for the ultimate result; and when his principle was obtained, the application of it to produce movement of machinery demanded a new species of intellectual and experimental labor.”[6]

Watt understood that if he wanted to command nature to serve his purposes, he must first understand it, and then obey it. He knew, as Bacon wrote, that “toward the effecting of works, all man can do is to put together or put asunder natural bodies. The rest is done by nature working within.”[7] Watt was determined to understand the ‘nature working within’ the steam engine so that he could re-arrange its parts to serve his purposes. Professor Pritchett, who taught at MIT in the late 19th century, commented on Watt’s investigation into the nature of steam: he wrote, “The problem of which Watt solved a part is not the problem of inventing a machine, but the problem of using and storing the forces of nature which now go to waste.” The forces of nature, particularly of steam, are what they are; they cannot be altered but they can be harnessed. For example, Watt’s discovery of the nature of latent heat that lay ‘within’ steam allowed him to increase the efficiency of the steam engine five-fold.[8] Watt was able to harness the latent heat that was ‘hidden’ in steam in order to serve his own purposes.

Another example of Watt discovering the cause of something in order to produce the effect is found in his method of building an organ. He was commissioned by the Mason’s Lodge in Glasgow to build a finger-organ. Watt proceeded to build the organ in true Baconian style. First, he discovered all there was to know about the science of music, and then he proceeded to construct his organ. Andrew Carnegie, in his biography of Watt, notes how upon receiving the commission, “Watt immediately devoted himself to a study of the laws of harmony, making science supplement his lack of the musical ear. As usual, the study was exhaustive…It is safe to say that there was not then a man in Britain who knew more of the science of music and was more thoroughly prepared to excel in the art of making organs than the new organ-builder.”[9] Watt sought knowledge of music in order to have the power to build an organ. In the same passage, Carnegie notes how Watt’s method of operation—first knowledge and then application—was ever-present, and that “the best proof that [Watt] was a man of true genius is that he first made himself master of all knowledge bearing upon his tasks.”[10]

Francis Bacon is famously known for his claim that knowledge is power: he wrote, “Human knowledge and human power meet in one.” In Bruce J. Hunt’s book, Pursuing Power and Light, he writes, “the interaction between the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of power comes across especially clearly in…the relationship between the development of the steam engine and the study of heat and energy.”[11] In Watt, we have the typical character of the men of the Enlightenment; they were at once men of thought and men of action. The view of knowledge as a means to increasing the dominion of man over nature was inaugurated by Francis Bacon. One of the themes of Bacon’s Novus Organum is that all knowledge must have a practical orientation. The ultimate aim of Watt’s scientific research was always to put it to practice in some invention. Sir Humphrey Davy wrote, “[Watt] brought every principle to some practical use; and, as it were, made science descend from heaven to earth.”[12]

Watt knew that the discovery of causes was necessary for his inventions and he knew that knowledge was worthless unless applied to practical advantage. Both of these principles derive from Francis Bacon. There was, however, a more subtle aspect of Watt that is found on the pages of Bacon’s Novus Organum—his method of thought. One of the aspects of Watt’s method of thought was his ability to tie his concepts and principles to the facts which they represent. Lord Brougham wrote that it was as if Watt’s “mind had separate niches for keeping each particular.”[13] Watt understood (if only implicitly) that principles are man’s means of organizing his experiences; and that a principle that is detached from its particulars is meaningless and useless. In his Novus Organum, Francis Bacon outlines the method by which principles are formed from a series of particular facts. He argues that in any cognitive endeavor, one should first list out as many facts as one can think of. This is exactly the process that Watt used when he gathered information from a vast supply of books before turning to practical application. Then, Bacon argued that one must seek out that principle which applies to all of the facts and which does not contradict any of them. For example, Watt discovered the necessity of the separate condenser because of a contradiction between facts of the Newcomen engine and the principles of steam power. On the one hand, the cylinder had to be kept at a high temperature so that power was not lost in re-heating the walls of the cylinder; on the other hand, the steam had to be cooled in order to produce a vacuum to pull down the piston. The fact that these two processes occurred in the same cylinder contradicted the principle that both processes counteract each other; therefore, Watt invented his separate condenser to separate the heating and cooling processes.

Because Watt used principles to organize his thoughts and experiences, he had a unique ability—the ability to think in essentials. Bacon’s method of cognition instructs one on how to develop principles which are essential, i.e., principles which explain the actions of everything within its domain. For instance, a principle of steam power should explain how steam acts in every circumstance, bar none. Moreover, since the principle applies to every single instance of steam, the principle is essential to the nature of steam. Watt had the lighting quick ability to analyze all of the facts of a given problem and immediately develop a principle which explained them all; in other words, he was adept at cutting write to the essence of a problem. Watt used principles to organize all of the facts of any given problem and to discover its essence. Lord Jeffrey reported that a “still higher and rarer faculty” of Watt’s was “his power of digesting and arranging in its proper place all the information he received, and of casting aside and rejecting, as it were instinctively, whatever was worthless or immaterial.”[14] Like most geniuses, Watt was able to cast aside all that was non-essential in order to get to the heart of the matter. Lord Brougham noted how Watt was able to cast aside “all worthless and superfluous matter, as if the same mind had some fine machine for acting like a fan, casting off the chaff and the husk.”[15] Bacon argued that all principles must be meticulously connected to all of the facts which they represent. Watt had a prodigious memory in which he stored all of the facts which were connected to his principles. Moreover, by discovering the principle which explained every single aspect of a problem, he knew the essence of the problem; and, therefore, he was well positioned to solve it.

Watt, like Bacon, understood that knowledge of causes was necessary in order to produce effects, that knowledge is meant to be applied to practical advantage, and that principles are man’s means of organizing facts and discovering what is essential. James Watt was the perfect embodiment of Bacon’s philosophy. In Bacon’s New Atlantis, he depicted a society in which men collaborated to discover the forces of nature and then used that knowledge to increase man’s dominion over nature. James Watt’s character contained both sides of Bacon’s vision: he was a scientist and an inventor. Sir James Mackintosh, a friend of Watt, describes how in Bacon’s New Atlantis, Bacon, the “father of modern philosophy” depicts a room which shall house the “statues of inventors.” Mackintosh then considers what Bacon would have thought of Watt: “What place would Lord Bacon have assigned in such a gallery to the statue of Mr. Watt? Is it too much to say, that, considering the magnitude of the discoveries, the genius and science necessary to make them, and the benefits arising from them to the world, that statue must have been placed at the head of those of all inventors in all ages and nations.”[16]

When confronted with a problem, Watt poured over all of the existing knowledge, organized that knowledge, performed experiments to discover new knowledge, discovered the principles that were the essence of the problem, and used these principles to guide his solutions. While there is no evidence of Watt’s knowledge of Francis Bacon, it is unlikely that a man as well versed as him would not have read the most pre-eminent natural philosopher from his homeland. Regardless of Bacon’s direct influence on James Watt, the similarities between Watt’s character and Bacon’s philosophy are inescapable. Bacon’s philosophy was vindicated through the character and achievements of James Watt.

Watt’s steam engine became known as the ‘work horse’ of the industrial revolution. First, it was used to raise water from the coalmines, thereby advancing the iron industry. His rotative engine was used in factories, particularly in the textile industry; thus supplying millions of people with comfortable and economical clothing. His engines were used in steam engine powered trains and the steamboat which shrunk the size of the globe and integrated markets over vast distances. The effects of Watt’s engines can even be seen in the second industrial revolution in America. Andrew Carnegie wrote, in the preface of his biography of Watt: “Why shouldn’t I write the Life of the maker of the steam engine, out of which I had made a fortune.”[17] Because of Watt’s engines, power could be supplied cheaply and efficiently in areas which did not have access to sufficient wind or water. If Watt had been a mere craftsmen, who tinkered with devices until they worked, he would have never been able to discover the inefficiencies of engines or improve them greatly. James Watt played a great role in advancing the lives of men on earth, and Francis Bacon had a great influence on the intellectual style of the Enlightenment period, as is manifest in the character of James Watt.


[1] Hart, Ivor Blashka. James Watt and the History of Steam Power. New York: Collier, 1961. (24)

[2] Ibid. (26)

[3] Carnegie, Andrew. James Watt,. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1905. (50)

[4] Hart, Ivor Blashka. James Watt and the History of Steam Power. New York: Collier, 1961. (27)

[5] Bacon, Francis, and F. H. Anderson. The New Organon and Related Writings. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960. (39)

[6] Carnegie, Andrew. James Watt,. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1905. (225)

[7] Bacon, Francis, and F. H. Anderson. The New Organon and Related Writings. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960. (39)

[8] Carnegie, Andrew. James Watt,. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1905. (53)

[9] Carnegie, Andrew. James Watt,. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1905. (40)

[10] Ibid.

[11] Hunt, Bruce J. Pursuing Power and Light: Technology and Physics from James Watt to Albert Einstein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010. (2)

[12] Carnegie, Andrew. James Watt,. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1905. (225)

[13] Ibid. (239)

[14] Ibid. (235)

[15] Ibid. (239)

[16] Ibid. (226)

[17] Ibid. (Preface)

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