Popularised during the industrial revolution steam engines really changed our way of life. But surprisingly that is not where they started.
The earliest use of a steam powered device was in the early years of the first century A.D. in Greece. It was designed by a man named Hero of Alexandria and was called an aeolipile. Hero’s aeolipile consisted of a metal sphere which was hollow, some tubes which connected to the sphere and as it heated, the steam caused the sphere to rotate. This was a primitive sort of turbine and regarded as more of a novelty than any sort of production means.
Until the 17th century.
During this time people were slowly switching from wood to coal for their fuel source. This meant that more and more mines were being opened. But then problems arose. Miners would accidentally tap into underground water pockets and subsequently flood the mine shaft. decor
Jerónimo de Ayanz, a spanish mining administrator, is believed to be one of the first people to solve the issue of flooding mines. Ayanz used his steam engine to propel water out of the Guadalcanal silver mines. He patented this invention in 1606, though credit is more often given to an Englishmen. Thomas Savery who in 1698, designed a machine inspired by the pressure cooker. This machine would use steam to draw out the water from flooded mines. The inspiration was thanks to a man called Dennis Papin. It was his design of a piston and cylinder steam engine that Savery turned into a useful invention.
There were some flaws to Savery’s designs. For one, they could only pump water at shallower depths. This meant the device was useless in deeper mines. The other was it’s need for a build up of steam pressure which did lead to multiple unfortunate accidents that ended in explosions. Luckily, another inventor named Thomas Newcomen, designed a new way to pump the water from the mines. His method meant the water could be cleared from deep mines, and because it no longer required a build up of steam pressure, the risk of explosions was also reduced!
Despite all of it’s improvements, Newcomen’s design still had its own flaws. For one, it was incredibly inefficient. Due to the cylinders overheating it required a regular flow of cool water, but it also required large amounts of fuel to keep the cylinders hot enough to convert the steam into motion.
Even though this model had its flaws, the design was used unchallenged for the next 50 years or so. It had many applications besides clearing out mines such as; draining wetlands and powering factories and mills (this was done by pumping water back above a water wheel, allowing for more consistency).
The next improvement to this design came in 1765 when a Scotsman called James Watt was hired by Glasgow University to fix one of Newcomen’s engines. Watt figured out a way to reduce the engine’s inefficiency, by simply adding in an extra component for steam to be condensed in. This would mean the cylinders could remain at a constant temperature, rather than being cooled and reheated.
So now the system works by adding in a valve to the condenser chamber. Allowing the steam to exit the pressurised cylinder and return to a liquid state, without the need to cool down the cylinders. This made the system more efficient since it eliminated the time it took to cool and reheat the cylinders each time. This would also reduce the stress on the materials over time.
In 1776 Watt joined forces with another Englishman called Mathew Boulton. This gave Watt the finances he needed to create his improved version of the steam engine. With Boulton’s added motivation to design an engine that could do more than pump water from mines, the two created an amazing design that used a parallel motion mechanism and centrifugal governor. This meant that not only did the new steam engine have double the power of the original Newcomen design, but also allowed the operator control what speed the engine worked at through the centrifugal governor. This control panel used a new gear system designed by William Murdoch, the purpose was to turn linear motion into rotative motion.
These improvements combined with Boulton’s visionary mindset lead to steam power taking over the United Kingdom, and then slowly the United States, throughout the 1800’s. The Boulton-Watt design was introduced to factories, mills, breweries and many more.
It wasn’t long before the steam engine began to evolve further and make its way into the transport industry. In 1802 designs for early steam powered trains, called locomotives, were in motion, and in just 10 years, they were running commercially. This then expanded into other means of travel such as airships and boats.
Over the course of their partnership, Watt and Boulton created many variants of their engine for anyone who could possibly use it. This led to them making a large fortune. Despite this, they were still open with their research.
Thanks to the work of Newcomen, Watt, Boulton and many more ingenious people throughout history, the industrial revolution moved forward with far greater speed than could ever have been achieved without it. The invention of locomotives and steamboats meant that much larger cargo loads could be transported faster and for longer periods of time than they could with the use of animals and manual labour. Factories and machinery could now operate much faster, creating more stock for the economy.
Overall the invention and development of the steam engine is part of the reason we experience the world in the way it is now. Some historians argue that it is very much a ‘chicken or egg’ situation. They claim that the industrial revolution would have happened regardless of Newcomen developing that first engine design, but it was because of his invention that the western world developed the way it did, as fast as it did.