The Steam Engine
"The wonderful progress of the present century is, in a very great degree, due to the invention and improvement of the steam engine, and to the ingenious application of its power to kinds of work that formerly taxed the physical energies of the human race."~Robert H. Thurston

   The #15 2-8-2 in Tacoma Washington is just one example of the many uses of steam engines

    The steam engine can easily be considered the single most important invention of the entire industrial revolution.  There is not one part of industry present in today's society that can be examined without coming across some type of reference or dependence upon the steam engine.  But, who deserves the credit for this great invention?  Some give the credit to James Watt while others claim that Thomas Newcomen was the original inventor.  However, the idea of the using the power of steam to the advantage of human beings has been around practically since the beginning of time.  But, no practical uses for steam emerged until the 17th century.

    The majority of people will tell you that the steam engine was invented by James Watt.  But, this is far from the truth.  Like all other great inventions and great discoveries, the steam engine came about after centuries of work by numerous scientists, engineers and even writers.  It came from a compilation of work and theories that took centuries to complete.  If James Watt was not the first to create the steam engine, who was?  How did James Watt end up with all of the credit for the invention?  Was he just the one that was there at the right time and in the right place?  Is it true that James Watt discovered the steam engine when he observed the lid of a kettle lifting as water boiled within?  Those are the questions that we are out to answer.  But, keep in mind that "...inventions only become successful when they are not only needed, but when mankind is so far advanced in intelligence as to appreciate and to express the necessity for them, and to at once make use of them"~Robert H. Thurston.

    The idea using the power of steam to our advantage goes back nearly twenty-one centuries.  A learned writer in ancient Alexandria, named Hero, wrote a manuscript describing various devices and ideas of the time.  Although it is not proven that Hero was the inventor of any of these devices, he is given credit for the earliest mention of steam power.  Hero describes a method to open the doors of a temple with the action of a fire on the alter at the front of the temple.  The picture below on the left shows Hero's plan.  A series of pipes runs between the alter and the temple doors.  The force of the steam created by the fire on the alter is strong enough to open the temple doors.  The essential principle that Hero used was to change heat energy into mechanical energy or work.  Supposedly, Hero continued his work and ended up creating what is often called the "First Steam Engine."  Hero's engine is featured on below on the right.  The cauldron or bowl like portion AB holds water.  There is a steam tight cover place over top of the cauldron.  Two pipes extend from the lid and suspend a globe directly above the cauldron.  The water is heated, causing steam to be created and forced through the pipes.  The globe then fills with steam.  Pipes K and H are located on opposite sides of the globe and allow the steam to escape when the pressure becomes uneven.  The escaping steam then causes the globe to spin on its axis.

    The power of steam has always existed in our environment.  It has been shown constantly through natural occurrences all around us.  But, man did not make the power of steam useful until the beginning of the Christian era.  Even after the development of Hero's engine, it took hundreds of years until any single person found a practical use for this awesome power.  Humans never saw a need to harness the power of steam because the labor and toil of slaves and animals was sufficient for everything that needed to be done.

    Experiments with steam began to resurface again near the end of the sixteenth century.  A man named Matthesius preached about what was believed to be a steam engine and its "...tremendous results which may follow the volcanic action of a small quantity of confined vapor"(Thurston, 10).  It is believed that the first attempt to actually make steam use practical occurred in 1543 upon a naval ship.  Blasco de Garay, a Spanish naval officer, attempted to move the paddle wheels of the ship with what could possibly be considered a steam engine.  This account however is not well credited because nothing is really known about the make-up of the so called steam engine except that it contained a "vessel of boiling water."

    In 1601, Giovanni Battista della Porta described a machine that could be used to raise a column of water with the use of steam.  He described this machine in a work entitled "Spiritali."  Porta's work included a vacuum created by the condensation of steam into which water would flow.  Porta's apparatus, picture below, was called the "Pneumatica."  Porta's machine was described as being able to raise water with steam pressure.  Although Porta's machine was never applied to any practical uses, he accurately described the necessary presence of a vacuum created by steam to raise the water.

    Another man that is mistakenly given a lot of credit for the invention of the steam engine is Edward Somerset, Marquis of Worcester.  The Marquis has been hailed as the originator of the machine that was used to raise water by the force of fire.  However, the Marquis never actually built such a machine.  The only machine that he ever constructed was capable of raising water to a height of forty feet, but this was done by a manual pump in 1663.  The Marquis was all talk and no action.  He tried to convince everyone around him through his writing that he was capable of raising water with fire.  But, nobody ever saw him actually achieve his claim.  He may have had some pretty convincing plans about a way to make his claim work, but the Marquis failed every time.

  Other people that can be credited with work on the steam engine are Jacob Besson a professor of Mathematics anc Natural Philosophy at Orleans, Agostino Ramelli an Italian writer, Leonardo da Vinci a mathematician, engineer, poet and painter, Florence Rivault, Salomon de Caus,  Giovanni Branca, David Raseye, Thomas Grant, and Edward Ford.  All of these men made contributions to the idea of the steam engine before Newcomen and Watt were ever even born.  Below are three examples of the designs that some of these men came up with.

    Thomas Savery  became the first man to produce a workable apparatus for raising water.  Savery's apparatus was able to draw water up by suction to a height of approximately twenty-six to twenty-eight feet.  The water was able to reach this height due to atmospheric pressure and the condensation of steam within the closed vessel.  Savery was the first to make the necessary connection between steam power and atmospheric pressure.  Without adding in atmospheric pressure, steam power may have never been harnessed.  Savery became the first to put the method of raising water by fire to use for draining mines.  In 1698, Savery patented his design.

    It is believed that Thomas Newcomen simultaneously came up with the idea of the fire engine.  Newcomen was born to a good family but received very little schooling.  Newcomen was the first man to work on the steam engine who was a practical tradesman.  He did not waste his time with philosophers or royal protégés.  Newcomen was an iron monger in Dartmouth.  Because of his lower class standing, Newcomen was not quickly accepted or recognized for his achievements or contributions to the steam engine.  It is believed that Newcomen had no prior knowledge of the work of his predecessors in the area of the steam engine.  His engine was introduced in 1712 and was basically a combination of the boiler used in Savery's engine with a cylinder and pump.  The Newcomen model was unlike other engines up to this time.  It was the first engine that was actually self acting.  The make up of the engine went a little something like this.  The cylinder housed a piston that was forced to move up and down due to atmospheric pressure and steam pressure.  There was a boiler that produced the steam and a cock that allowed a jet of cold water to condense the steam and vary the pressure within the engine.  As the piston was forced up and down the handle of an attached lever was forced to move as well.  This apparatus was used to successfully raise water from mines.  Newcomen's engine is pictured below.

    Newcomen's engine was so successful that  it was still being used in the twentieth century.  Modern day steam engines can easily be traced back to Newcomen's design.  The driving force behind Newcomen's engine was a vacuum that was created by the condensation of steam back into water.  He was definitely the first to make a huge advance in the development of the steam engine.  There is actually a Newcomen Engine still around today.  It resides at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  The engine, pictured below, was originally used to pump water from a mine with an over all power of about fifteen horsepower in 1760.

    However, Newcomen is unfortunately overshadowed by the well known James Watt.  Beginning in 1765, Watt was incorrectly labeled the "inventor" of the steam engine.  James Watt was born in Greenock, Scotland.  Around 1769, he was assigned the task of repairing a Newcomen engine that was deemed inefficient.  The Newcomen engine however was the best engine available at the time.  Watt eventually added a separate condenser to Newcomen's engine.  This caused the steam to condense in a separate vessel instead of within the cylinder itself.  This conserved heat energy that had been lost due to alternately heating and cooling the cylinder.  Watt's addition saved almost %75 of the fuel that had previously been used by the engine.  Because of this improvement, a new era of steam engines arose.  It was almost a rebirth for the entire industry.  Although Watt did not initially invent the steam engine, he was given a lot of credit for it at this point.  Watt's addition ended up being the single greatest improvement ever made to the engine.  A New England writer was quoted in an article as stating, " Minerva sprang, mature in mind, in full stature of body and completely armed, from the head of Jupiter, so the steam engine came forth, perfect at its birth, from the brain of James Watt"(Thurston, 3).  It is statements like these that take the credit away from the people that deserve it and give it to the one person who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  James Watt's addition to the steam engine most likely would have been overlooked had it been added years before.  He just lucked out and happened to make the addition when the people were ready to accept it.  As Thurston says, "Inventions only become successful when they are not only needed, but when mankind is so far advanced in intelligence as to appreciate and to express the necessity for them, and to at once make use of them"(Thurston, 3).  Watt ended up with the majority of the credit for the steam engine because all of the men before them were basically ahead of their time.  The people were not technologically advanced enough or mentally ready to accept and appreciate their work.

The picture below shows the an actual condenser that was added to a Newcomen engine.

    Watt's addition to the steam engine caused its production and overall usefulness to skyrocket in the 1800s.  The steam engine became that most important aspect of the industrial revolution.  It was used on railways, paddle steamers, and steamboats.  It was not only used to move goods from place to place but also to move people.

Rapid Growth of Steam Engine Use

    The dawn of the nineteenth century brought about the Industrial Revolution.  The steam engine was a major factor in the Industrial Revolution.  Steam locomotives and steam paddle boats began to pop up everywhere.  In 1807, Robert Fulton introduced the first steamship to provide regular passenger service to the people of America.  He named it the "Clermont."  The "Clermont" made a 150 mile trip from New York City to Albany in 32 hours at an average speed of 5 miles per hour.  By 1825, steam locomotives were no longer used just for moving goods.  Passenger locomotives were rapidly growing due to the increase in commuter traffic in large cities.  By the early 1900's, express locomotives were beginning to appear.  Locomotives started getting bigger and faster.  1960 brought about the end of the locomotive era however.  The "Evening Star" was the last express locomotive to be built in Britain.

More Modern Pictures of the Use of Steam Engines

Steam Timeline
A few of the Highlights
100 A.D.  Hero's Engine is Created
5th-15th Centuries Needs of the people surpass the ability of human and animal labor
1606 Giovanni Battista Della Porta uses steam to make water rise through a column
1690 Denys Papin discovers a way to produce a vacuum using steam but does not pursue the knowledge
1698 Thomas Savery combines the force of steam with the pressure of the atmosphere and patents the first atmospheric engine
1712 Thomas Newcomen produces a self acting atmospheric engine
1769 James Watt is granted a patent for the Separate Condenser
1780 James Pickard and Matthew Wasborough create an engine with rotary motion by fitting a crank, rod and flywheel to
Newcomer's Model
1783 A double acting engine is introduced by Watt - Steam pushes on each side of the piston alternately as opposed to just one side
1786 Boulton and Watt produce a double acting rotative engine
1802 A steam railway locomotive is built at Coalbrookdale, Shropshire
A stern wheel steam paddle tug is created by William Symington
1807 Robert Fulton's ship the "Clermont" becomes the first steamship to provide regular passenger service in America
1825 The First Public Railway to use steam locomotives opens
1827 The era of locomotive success begins in Britain
1838 The Great Western Railway opens
1844 The "Lancashire" boiler is introduced in Manchester by William Fairbairn
1846 The Regulation of Railways (Gauge) Act is passed
The "Tank Engine" is born
1850 Randolph Elder fits the first marine compound engine
1865 Commuter Traffic becomes prominent in large cities - Passenger traffic locomotives are introduced by the railways
1878 Willans patents the high speed fully enclosed "inverted vertical" engine
1890 Charles Pain patents the forced-lubrication-high-speed-enclosed engine
1898 The first British express locomotive travels on the Great Northern Railway
1906 Superheating of steam is invented by Dokter Schmidt and used in British Railway locomotives
1938 The streamlined "Pacific" 4-6-2 locomotive "Mallard" reaches a speed of 126 miles per hour (201 kph),
This speed still stands as a world record.
1960 The final steam locomotive is built by British Railways - "Evening Star"

Resources and Reviews

Dickinson, H.W.  A Short History of the Steam Engine, Cambridge University Press, Great Britain, 1939.
    Dickinson's A Short History of the Steam Engine seeks to prove that the steam engine, although seemingly out of date, is very important to industry and society in 1939 and probably still today.  Dickinson aims to give the reader a brief but detailed history of the evolution of the steam engine.  He starts with the earliest known work in the area and proceeds through the well known and not so well known contributors.  Dickinson does a good job of staying on topic and not straying.  This book is directed more towards the scientific or engineering type.  It contains charts and tables that almost make it worthy of being used as a textbook in an engineering class.

Rolt, L.T.C.  Thomas Newcomen: The Prehistory of the Steam Engine, Latimer Trend & Co. Ltd., Great Britain, 1963.
    Thomas Newcomen:  The Prehistory of the Steam Engine was written by L.T.C. Rolt in order to honor the name of a man too often overlooked.  Newcomen was at the forefront of the perfection of the steam engine.  He added crucial elements to its design and helped to boost its popularity.  But, Newcomen was unfortunately overshadowed by the single addition that James Watt made a few decades later.  Since then, James Watt has received the majority of the credit for the invention of the steam engine.  Rolt does a decent job of bringing the focus back to Newcomen.  He shows that Newcomen deserves much more credit for his work than he was ever given.  The purpose of this book is clear from the introduction, bring the attention back to the man that deserves it.  Rolt seems to be upset in a way about Newcomen not being honored in the way that he should.  However, Newcomen was not even the first to come up with the idea of the steam engine.  If Rolt wants credit to be given where credit is due then he should do more than just briefly mention the men that worked on the ideas before Newcomen was even around.

Thurston, Robert H.  A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine, Cornell University Press, New York, 1939.
    Thurston's only claim is to give the reader an idea of where the idea of using steam started and how it progressed over time.  Thurston starts with the very first evidence of the mention of steam and then shows how men built on that idea over time.  The facts presented in the book are extremely relevant to the claim that the title makes.  Thurston does not seem to stray from his topic whatsoever.  He does a very good job of mentioning nearly every person who had any part in the development of the steam engine.  However, he does not waste the reader's time with useless facts about the person's life.  Thurston gives the reader just enough information to know where the contributor to the development of the steam engine is coming from.  Also, Thurston does not jump from subject to subject.  He builds on what he previously stated in the same way that the scientists and engineers mentioned in the book built on the work of those before them.    Thurston's book is a compilation of portions of lectures that he wrote to give at the Stevens Institute of Technology in 1871 and 1872.  Although this book was originally published in 1878, it is still considered a classic for the period studied.  More than sixty years have passed since it's last publication but, it still does an excellent job of covering the history of the growth of the steam engine.  This is definitely a book that is directed towards those interested in science and engineering.  It does a decent job of breaking the concepts down but does not put them at an elementary level.
    This website is merely an online version of Thurston's book, A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine.  It is very easy to move from chapter to chapter and navigate your way through the book.  The online version of the book also includes all of the pictures included in the hard copy of the text.  The pictures however are much bigger and clearer than they are in the book.  This makes it much easier to see just how the apparatus may have worked and what the theory behind its construction was.
    The link above will take the reader to a site entitled "The History of the First Locomotives in America."  This is an excellent link for someone wanting to know anything at all about how locomotives came to be in America.  This is actually an online version of a book by William H. Brown.  The chapters of the book are short and easy to read.  There are very few, if any, illustrations to aid the reader however.  Like many of the books and websites on the topic of steam engines, this one is somewhat boring.  It does not do a good job of keeping the reader's attention.
    This is a link to an online book about the life and legend of James Watt.  It was written in 1905 by Andrew Carnegie.  It starts out with Watt's early life and follows him through his interest in steam and steam power.  The biography tells the reader everything from how Watt became interested in steam power to the records that the steam engine held at the time that the book was written.  This biography is meant for at least high school age readers and is directed more so towards those interested in science or engineering history.
    This website is successful at telling the reader everything that they want to know and more about the history and evolution of steam engines.  It hits on all the major advancements as well as fall backs that occurred over the years.  It is very easy to find whatever you are looking for on this website.  The most beneficial part of the website however, is a link to a page that gives a timeline of the growth of the steam engine.  This timeline is very well illustrated and makes note of all of the large and small developments in the evolution of the steam engine.

Pictures were taken from the following websites:

By Kendra Bolon, Spring 2001