Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine in 1712. From an early age, Watt was good at engineering and math. He studied instruments in London before returning to Scotland to set up his own business, which did not go so well.
Watt then got a job repairing instruments at the University of Glasgow. In 1764, the University of Glasgow had a Newcomen steam engine that was not working well and James Watt was asked to help repair. He got extremely interested in the steam engine in general – and in particular how much steam was escaping – and he designed a separate condenser. Four years later, he entered into a partnership to manufacture engines and received a patent in 1769. The business did not go well. He had become a land surveyor, mapping canal routes, but did not want to give up on the engine – constantly tinkering. In 1775, three years after his first partner went bankrupt, he joined with Matthew Boulton and moved to Birmingham to continue to work on the engine. Watt continued to add new developments and enhance the engine throughout the next 25 years, ending only upon retirement.
The steam engine changed history. While much is owed to Thomas Newcomen, it was not until James Watt and the pursuit of his passion that it started to produce a real impact on manufacturing, commerce, transportation, and virtually all facets of life at the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Managers and HR professionals can find several lessons in the life and work of James Watt. He never gave up on pursuing his passion. He took different jobs and forged new partnerships - for almost 50 years - to see his dream of a better steam engine become reality. Empowering people to be curious, to experiment, and to find their passion is a great way to help build team capabilities, improve morale, increase retention and engagement. Modern-day events like hackathons or 20 percent time capture the spirit of James Watt and his endless pursuit of perfection.
One could argue that the Watt steam engine had more influence on the world of work than anything, before or since. Some, certainly many workers in the Industrial Revolution would say it was negative. We can learn much from James Watt and his drive to make an impact. In the epic song Imagine, John Lennon sung of being a dreamer, and managers and HR professionals need to take the time to listen – and to support the dreams of employees like James Watt – encouraging them to pursue their passions and make their dreams a reality. These are the people that will change the world.
As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."