Today, Andrew Carnegie looks at James Watt. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Andrew Carnegie was in his
60s when a publisher asked him to write the
biography of James Watt. Of course Carnegie said
"No." He was, after all, no historian. He was an
industrialist and one of the wealthiest people on
earth. On the face of it, the request made little
sense. But, wrote Carnegie, "the idea haunted me
... Why shouldn't I write the life of the maker of
the steam engine, out of which I had made a
Carnegie had first worked for a railroad. Then he
bought a small oil field. After the Civil War he
concentrated on producing steel. It was the right
choice. Oil would make people rich later on. But,
for now, America would be built on steam, iron, and
steel. It was Carnegie who formed what later became
By the time internal-combustion engines began
remolding America, Carnegie had switched careers
yet again. When he took on Watt's biography, he'd
quit amassing wealth and was now committed to doing
the maximum possible good in giving his money away.
Carnegie was an old-school capitalist whose
objective was social improvement. The 19th century
had seen that breed of idealists replaced by the
so-called robber-barons -- people like Astor,
McCormick, and Hill.
Carnegie took his cues from the first of his kind.
The authors of the 18th-century Industrial
Revolution had formed into seminars and cell-groups
where they'd talked about shaping technological
change in the best interests of the people. People
like Boulton, Watt, and Wedgwood knew what they
were doing to the world, and they were gravely
concerned with doing it right.
Small wonder Carnegie looked with such affection on
James Watt, who, like him, was born in Scotland and
devoted a life to reshaping the world. Carnegie
finished his biography of Watt in 1905. In that, he
followed the footsteps of the French scientist
Arago wrote the first major Watt biography
specifically to tell the French that technology was
a force for social reform.
Two features mark Carnegie's work. One is
19th-century sentiment. No deconstruction here --
no dirty linen or skeletons in the closet. He
praises Watt's honesty, clarity, and brilliance
without stint. And, at length, he writes something
patently autobiographical: "Watt," he says,
"gracefully glided into old age. This is the great
test of success in life."
But Carnegie's book had a more important feature
than sentiment. It had accuracy. In it I
find things told just the way modern historians
sorted them out seventy years later. For all its
Victorian sentiment, this book gives me hope --
hope for technology and hope for capitalism (which
has so often failed us). It also redeems sentiment,
which rings false so often we could all be cynics.
But nothing rings false here. Andrew Carnegie's own
life validated his use of Watt -- as the model for
a life lived well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds