Universities originated in medieval Europe, where for centuries they existed mainly to pass existing knowledge on to subsequent generations. Advances in human knowledge were driven primarily by craftsmen working in guilds. Industrial craftsmanship and university research rarely crossed paths.
That changed during the Industrial Revolution, when universities went from simply disseminating knowledge to pushing back its frontiers. James Watt developed the modern steam engine while repairing an inefficient early model at the University of Glasgow. His refinements led to the widespread use of steam power for manufacturing and transport.