The Lesson Of The Teakettle by Orison Swett Marden

Story type: Literature

The teakettle was singing merrily over the fire; the good aunt was bustling round, on housewifely cares intent, and her little nephew sat dreamily gazing into the glowing blaze on the kitchen hearth.

Presently the teakettle ceased singing, and a column of steam came rushing from its pipe. The boy started to his feet, raised the lid from the kettle, and peered in at the bubbling, boiling water, with a look of intense interest. Then he rushed off for a teacup, and, holding it over the steam, eagerly watched the latter as it condensed and formed into tiny drops of water on the inside of the cup.

Returning from an upper room, whither her duties had called her, the thrifty aunt was shocked to find her nephew engaged in so profitless an occupation, and soundly scolded him for what she called his trifling. The good lady little dreamed that James Watt was even then unconsciously studying the germ of the science by which he “transformed the steam engine from a mere toy into the most wonderful instrument which human industry has ever had at its command.”

This studious little Scottish lad, who, because too frail to go to school, had been taught at home, was very different from other boys. When only six or seven years old, he would lie for hours on the hearth, in the little cottage at Greenock, near Glasgow, where he was born in 1736, drawing geometrical figures with pieces of colored chalk. He loved, too, to gaze at the stars, and longed to solve their mysteries. But his favorite pastime was to burrow among the ropes and sails and tackles in his father’s store, trying to find out how they were made and what purposes they served.

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In spite of his limited advantages and frail health, at fifteen he was the wonder of the public school, which he had attended for two years. His favorite studies were mathematics and natural philosophy. He had also made good progress in chemistry, physiology, mineralogy, and botany, and, at the same time, had learned carpentry and acquired some skill as a worker in metals.

So studious and ambitious a youth scarcely needed the spur of poverty to induce him to make the most of his talents. The spur was there, however, and, at the age of eighteen, though delicate in health, he was obliged to go out and battle with the world.

Having first spent some time in Glasgow, learning how to make mathematical instruments, he determined to go to London, there to perfect himself in his trade.

Working early and late, and suffering frequently from cold and hunger, he broke down under the unequal strain, and was obliged to return to his parents for a time until health was regained.

Always struggling against great odds, he returned to Glasgow when his trade was mastered, and began to make mathematical instruments, for which, however, he found little sale. Then, to help eke out a living, he began to make and mend other instruments,–fiddles, guitars, and flutes,–and finally built an organ,–a very superior one, too,–with several additions of his own invention.

A commonplace incident enough it seemed, in the routine of his daily occupation, when, one morning, a model of Newcomen’s engine was brought to him for repair, yet it marked the turning point in his career, which ultimately led from poverty and struggle to fame and affluence.

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Watt’s practiced eye at once perceived the defects in the Newcomen engine, which, although the best then in existence could not do much better or quicker work than horses. Filled with enthusiasm over the plans which he had conceived for the construction of a really powerful engine, he immediately set to work, and spent two months in an old cellar, working on a model. “My whole thoughts are bent on this machine,” he wrote to a friend. “I can think of nothing else.”

So absorbed had he become in his new work that the old business of making and mending instruments had declined. This was all the more unfortunate as he was no longer struggling for himself alone. He had fallen in love with, and married, his cousin, Margaret Miller, who brought him the greatest happiness of his life. The neglect of the only practical means of support he had reduced Watt and his family to the direst poverty. More than once his health failed, and often the brave spirit was almost broken, as when he exclaimed in heaviness of heart, “Of all the things in the world, there is nothing so foolish as inventing.”

Five years had passed since the model of the Newcomen engine had been sent to him for repair before he succeeded in securing a patent on his own invention. Yet five more long years of bitter drudgery, clutched in the grip of poverty, debt, and sickness, did the brave inventor, sustained by the love and help of his noble wife, toil through. On his thirty-fifth birthday he said, “To-day I enter the thirty-fifth year of my life, and I think I have hardly yet done thirty-five pence worth of good in the world; but I cannot help it.”

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Poor Watt! He had traveled with bleeding feet along the same thorny path trod by the great inventors and benefactors of all ages. But, in spite of all obstacles, he persevered; and, after ten years of inconceivable labor and hardship, during which his beautiful wife died, he had a glorious triumph. His perfected steam engine was the wonder of the age. Sir James Mackintosh placed him “at the head of all inventors in all ages and nations.” “I look upon him,” said the poet Wordsworth, “considering both the magnitude and the universality of his genius, as, perhaps, the most extraordinary man that this country ever produced.”

Wealthy beyond his desires,–for he cared not for wealth,–crowned with the laurel wreath of fame, honored by the civilized world as one of its greatest benefactors, the struggle over, the triumph achieved, on August 19, 1819, he lay down to rest.

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