What can Scotland’s AI tech ecosystem learn from James Watt’s steam engine?

There are many parallels between James Watt’s challenges getting his steam engine built with those we face in helping Scottish AI companies succeed

Catriona Campbell

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At the Scottish AI Summit in March, I spoke about James Watt, the Scottish inventor of the modern steam engine. My talk received such great feedback that I wanted to share it more widely. Although originally aimed at a Scottish audience, what I say applies elsewhere too.

Watt’s innovation supercharged existing steam engine technology to — quite literally — power the entire industrial revolution. It’s seen by some historians as one of the defining moments of this seminal period.

Many distinct parallels exist between Watt’s rocky journey and the current challenges we face in helping AI companies succeed in Scotland, so the inventor’s backstory offers a valuable lesson in how countries should support industry to encourage innovation and scale start-ups faster.

Watt hailed from Greenock, near Glasgow, and his childhood was defined by a fascination with mechanical devices. The Scotsman’s first job was as an instrument engineer in London, a role he held for a year before returning to his homeland, where he took a job repairing very complex astronomical instruments at Glasgow University.

During his time at the uni, Watt was asked to repair a steam engine. Invented in 1712, the Newcomen engine was the leading design of its day, with hundreds produced throughout the 18th Century. Even so, it was inefficient and unreliable — problems he hoped to solve.

To achieve this, Watt secured funding from two financial backers, which quickly depleted with his efforts to secure patents. However, this was only one of the issues that plagued the project. The inventor also struggled to build the product due to the inability of local iron workers to deliver the precision engineering his design called for. His main backer ultimately fell into bankruptcy, and the curtain came down on Watt’s new and improved steam engine — temporarily, though.

An 8-year spell of full-time employment was the only way to keep the dream alive. During…

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Catriona Campbell

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position. catrionacampbell.com