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I have put in a fair amount of searching for this but have come up empty. I specifically remember the story printed from my childhood like 30-40 years ago, but I wanted to see if there's any source transcribed on the internet.

The printed account states that (I thought it was James Watt) was trying to figure out how (at that time) to make perfectly round ball bearings. He had a dream supposedly of an iron woman (no relation to Iron Maiden) crying metal tears and it was raining or some such similar detail.

Watt or whatever inventor then dropped molten iron of a specific quantity into a high vertical tank of water, and the resulting bearings came out perfectly or near perfectly round at the bottom.

Can anyone corroborate any portion of this? And give a reference? Thanks!

--- EDIT ---

I have found a book online, but it provides no further reference.

Here is another reference, but it states that he was walking in the rain but it was raining iron.

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    Researching "shot tower" leads to one William Watt, not James... and lead shot, not ball bearings...
    – DJohnM
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 3:30
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    The two URLs I referenced after clarify what I was looking for, but I don't know their sources per se. Seems to be pretty well historically accepted. I just don't like repeating urban legends. Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 14:35
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    I'm of the opinion this is on-topic here. However, the poster might be interested to know that there is in fact another stack covering specifically the history of science and math.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 15:57

1 Answer 1

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The assertion by Elwood that James Watt developed bearings based on dreams is almost certainly apocryphal. Otherwise, I would expect it to appear in at least one biography of James Watt, but I'm not finding it. I searched in the following, and none of them even hint at anything about work on bearings or lead shot, nor of dreams influencing his work in any way as far as I can tell.

  • Arago, F. (1839) Life of James Watt (link)
  • Carnegie, A. (1905) James Watt (link)
  • Dickinson, H. W. (1936) James Watt: Craftsman and Engineer (link)
  • Miller, D. P. (2009) James Watt, Chemist: Understanding the Origins of the Steam Age (link)
  • Muirhead, J. P. (1858) The Life of James Watt, with Selections from His Correspondence (link)
  • Russell, B. (2017) James Watt: Making the World Anew (link)
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  • For what it's worth, the story actually claimed he came up with the idea of creating lead shot, rather than ball bearings. It's mentioned in a number of studies about dreams (e.g. Understanding sleep and dreaming by William Moorcroft) It's still almost certainly apocryphal, but it's worth getting the details right. ;-) Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 20:52
  • @sempaiscuba The OP provides two sources, one says "ball bearings" and the other says "lead shot". Do have more examples that favor the latter? I made a small edit to my answer in any case.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 22:08
  • I'm not sure the one that says "ball bearings" is a text that I would rely on, but spirituality was never my strong suit. However, the lead shot version is also in Human Perception by Michael Kubovy if that helps. Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 22:22

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