The Most Useful Man Who Ever Lived

  • Date: 04/06/10

[…] James Watt’s life, from this perspective, is a synecdoche — a stand-in for the whole era of perpetual innovation known as the Industrial Revolution. His modest circumstances at birth, his apprenticeship and training in mathematics outside the traditional universities, his enormous success as an artisan-scientist-entrepreneur, and even his membership in the famous Lunar Society of Birmingham (which included Watt’s partner Matthew Boulton, Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, and William Small) are characteristics he shares with hundreds of other less well-remembered innovators. He was the era’s most prominent and articulate defender of the legal and moral rights of inventors, making dozens of court appearances (on his own behalf, and in support of others). In 1785, he wrote a “Bill to explain and amend the laws relative to Letters Patent and grants of privileges for new Inventions” in which he passionately observed:

An engineer’s life without patent is not worthwhile…. [F]ew men of ingenuity make fortunes … without suffering to think seriously whether the article he manufactures might, or might not, be Improved. The man of ingenuity in order to succeed … must seclude himself from Society, he must devote the whole powers of his mind to that one object, he must persevere in spite of the many fruitless experiments he makes, and he must apply money to the expences of these experiments, which strict Prudence would dedicate to other purposes.

It isn’t just that we remember Watt as “the most useful man who ever lived” because of his eureka moment, but that we remember his eureka moment because of his reputation as the most useful man who ever lived. A culture aspires to become that which it admires. A sizeable number of eighteenth-century Britons admired men like Watt, and what they represented; a large enough number, in fact, that Britain’s Patent Office, which at the time of Watt’s eureka moment granted fewer than twenty patents annually, was approving nearly three hundred per year by the time of his death. It was that admiration and aspiration that ignited the greatest innovation revolution in human history: one which, not at all coincidentally, has raised per capita human productivity — a number that had barely moved for five thousand years — at least tenfold in the last two centuries.

The inscription on the statue of Watt that stood in Westminster Abbey from 1825 until it was moved in 1960 reminded visitors that it was made “Not to perpetuate a name which must endure while the peaceful arts flourish, but to shew that mankind have learned to know those who best deserve their gratitude.” It is sometimes unclear whether we have actually learned this lesson all that well; a vocal minority seems nostalgic for the faux-Edenic world that existed before humanity started burning coal to boil water, and so produce power. Others have built academic careers on the dubious premise that the aggressive defense of patents by Watt, and those who followed him, did more to retard innovation than to promote it. Both nostalgia and revisionism are poor payment indeed for the debt that the modern world owes to the first generation of humanity that learned how to make heroes out of inventors.

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