The First Servomechanism


James Watt, as we probably all know, was the first person to invent a servomechanism.

A servo is of course a system that uses automatic feedback to regulate aspects of the system. While Indramat was a pioneering participant in motion control in the 20th century, the first servo was James Watt’s steam engine.

The Newcomen

The power of steam has been well known since the ancient Greeks, but the first practical use of steam in the modern era was the Newcomen steam pumping engine. James Watt was an industrial repair man, much like our team of experts in servo technology, and someone brought in a Newcomen engine to be repaired. Watt noticed that the design of the engine was inefficient — it didn’t take full advantage of the energy produced by the steam.

Watts designed a new steam pumping engine that had a separate condensation chamber. When the steam pushed the piston to the top of the cylinder, water was propelled into the condensation chamber. The closed loop system provided feedback that led to actions that brought the machine to the desired point, at which time the action ended and the cycle began again.

Where did the idea come from?

What made Watt think of this idea? We don’t really know. Watt’s father was a carpenter and mathematician who taught his son at home because James was in delicate health. While Watt was able to go to school when he became older, the early days spent with a combination of mathematics and practical building had a strong effect on him. He played around with musical instruments, thinking of ways to improve pipe organs and similar mechanical instruments, as well as models of carriages and vehicles of different kinds.

The leisure and solitude forced on Watt throughout most of his life gave him the chance to think outside the usual framework, and allowed him time to think about many different aspects of the functioning of the engine. Then one Sunday afternoon he took a walk past “the old washing house,” and the ideas that eventually led to the successful steam engine fell into place in Watt’s mind.

Could Watt have foreseen the way servomotors are used now? Probably not. Let’s celebrate him, though, whenever our machines run smoothly and efficiently. When they don’t, just call  us and let us help you get them back in order.

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