A tremendous piece of scholarship . . . should be read not just by by students of Watt but also by scholars concerned with chemistry, engineering, commemoration and reputation building from the mid-eighteenth century.
In the Victorian era, James Watt became an iconic engineer, but in his own time he was also an influential chemist. Miller examines Watt’s illustrious engineering career in light of his parallel interest in chemistry, arguing that Watt’s conception of steam engineering relied upon chemical understandings.
Part I of the book—Representations—examines the way James Watt has been portrayed over time, emphasizing sculptural, pictorial and textual representations from the nineteenth century. As an important contributor to the development of arguably the most important technology of industrialization, Watt became a symbol that many groups of thinkers were anxious to claim. Part II—Realities—focuses on reconstructing the unsung “chemical Watt” instead of the lionized engineer.
Will be especially valuable to readers interested in the science of the period. Highly recommended.
Miller has an enjoyable writing style. . . . The balance of the book is good and the 16-page bibliography is very wide ranging.
Miller concludes his fascinating study of reputation with an analysis of Watt's indicator in its late-eighteenth-century and ninteenth-century manifestations.
Miller adds significantly to our understanding of phlogistic chemistry in late eighteenth-century Britain and, via his account of Watt's role in the 'water controversy,' the Chemical Revolution itself. . . . It is a measure of his considerable acumen and talents as a historian that he achieves his novel and illuminating insights through a carefully crafted, exhaustively documented and tightly argued analysis of a period in the history of science which, though still poorly understood, transformed our comprehension and utilization of that most ubiquitous and precious substance, water.
The analysis is consistently convincing, the range of sources consulted is impressive, and the prose is direct and simple—yet always interesting.
David Philip Miller is emeritus professor of history of science at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities and a member of the International Academy of the History of Science.