He was the Scottish inventor hailed as “the father of the steam engine” – and now Boris Johnson’s decision to lay the blame for the climate crisis at his door has been condemned as hot air.

He was the Scottish inventor hailed as “the father of the steam engine” – and now Boris Johnson’s decision to lay the blame for the climate crisis at his door has been condemned as hot air.

The genius of the Greenock-born 18th century engineer James Watt has been celebrated with statues and banknotes and light bulbs today still bear his surname to denote their power.

He is considered one of the first heroes of the industrial age for improving the efficiency of the steam engine, with his technology utilised in paper, cotton, flour and iron mills as well as canals waterworks and distilleries.

But the prime minister spoke in far less flattering terms in an address on the opening day of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last week. He told delegates “It was here in Glasgow 250 years ago that James Watt came up with a machine that was powered by steam[1] that was produced by burning coal[2] and yes, my friends, - we have brought you to the very place where the doomsday device began to tick.”

While the industrial revolution led to a huge rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, several engineers said it was unfair and inaccurate to single out Watt for blame.

Ian Arbon, a visiting professor in sustainable energy at Strathclyde University, who curated an exhibition on the 250th anniversary of Watt’s steam engine in 2019[3], accused Johnson of looking for “a scapegoat”.

He said “We’re fairly accustomed to this complete piece of nonsense that’s often said by people with no qualification or understanding. The prime minister has failed to grasp even the fundamentals of the issues here and is factually and ethically wrong.”

Arbon said Watt was not responsible for the rapid and widespread use of fossil fuels contributed to climate change, arguing that early steam engines often used firewood as fuel but moved to coal due to its energy denseness and cheapness.

He believes it was the UK’s focus on cheap energy in more recent years that has been the main cause of our greenhouse gas emissions with political parties vying with each other to cut energy costs rather than deliver better energy policies.

He added “The prime minister wants to find a scapegoat. James Watt had no knowledge of climate change 250 years ago; we have known about the reality of climate change for decades and have done nothing.”

For Gordon Masterton, professor of engineering at the University of Edinburgh, Watt’s work to increase the efficiency of conventional engines had benefitted the environment.

“He was a compulsive improver and increased the efficiency and cleanliness of a horrible dirty engine that degraded the environment far more than what followed,” he said.”

Masterton believes that to fight the crisis, the same ingenuity is essential “We need more James Watts and more bright ideas to reduce emissions” he said. “He should be a role model not a demon, and shouldn’t be blamed for a phenomenon he was not aware of.”

Colin McInnes, a professor of engineering science and James Watt Chair at Glasgow University, agreed that Johnson’s comments missed the benefits of Watt’s innovation[4]. ‘He not only gave us a clear improvement on energy; he freed up people from the land and agriculture to do other things – and the benefits of that are manifold’ he said.

Laith Al-Khalaf, Ian Arbon, Gordon Masterton and Colin McInnes

(notes by I Arbon)

[1] The invention of the steam engine/turbine is generally credited to Hero of Alexandria, around 2000 years ago, in Boris’ beloved Greek civilisation. Even the ‘reinvention’ of the steam engine (e.g. Thomas Newcomen, c.1712) that sparked the Industrial Revolution occurred long before James Watt and not in Glasgow!

[2] Most steam engines of that era were fuelled by biomass (now regarded as a renewable fuel); it was later in the Industrial Revolution that coal took over, because it was much more cost-effective but this was a business decision and had little to do with Watt!

[3] What happened in Glasgow approximately 250 years ago was Watt’s invention (1765) and patenting (1769) of the separate condenser, which greatly improved the energy efficiency of the existing steam engines, particularly Newcomen’s, making them both ‘cleaner’ and ‘greener’.

[4] Had it not been for Watt’s invention of the separate condenser, the Industrial Revolution would have taken much longer and industrial/societal progress would have been much slower and we (Boris included) would not be enjoying the level of technological progress that we currently do.

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