James Watt’s Apparatus for Administering Medicinal Airs


The industrial revolution was ushered in by James Watt and his steam engine. Watt was a kind, compassionate man who applied his genius to help mankind. He was also a stingy, grumpy hypochondriac, though he was so witty about it that to know him was to love him. His diary is filled with details of his daily bowel movements and the colour of his sputum. It is no wonder that Watt’s enthusiasm for aches and pains spilled over into his inventions, with the development of a machine for administering medicinal airs. In essence, the apparatus was used to heat lime, mix with a variety of substances (whatever struck the fancy) such as like zinc, manganese, water, charcoal, etc. Get the concoction hot enough that it gives off gases, collected, and then breathed in by the grateful, desperate patient. It was very experimental, but the results were amazing – some patients fell straight into a deep sleep, and when (if) they woke up, forgot about their pain.  Too bad Watt didn’t know that he was treating himself and his loved ones with doses of some powerful poisons, carbon monoxide among them. Easy to judge his stupidity now, but back in his day, learned men had just “discovered” oxygen, and life expectancy was less than 40.  Innovation can only work with the raw material available at hand. It is, in essence, shortsighted.    

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