Steam power during the Industrial Revolution

Steam power during the Industrial Revolution

:"See also the section on steam power in the main Industrial Revolution article"

During the Industrial Revolution, steam power replaced water power and muscle power (which often came from horses) as the primary source of power in use in industry. Its first use was to pump water from mines. The early engines were not very efficient, but a modified version created by James Watt gave engines the power to become a driving force behind the Industrial Revolution. Steam power was not only used in engines but also in furnaces and other factory appliances that were difficult to implement prior to the invention of steam power.


If iron was the key metal of the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine was perhaps the most important technology. Inventions and improvements in the use of steam for power began prior to the 18th century, as they had with iron. As early as 1689, English engineer Thomas Savery created a steam engine to pump water from mines. Thomas Newcomen, another English engineer, developed an improved version by 1712. Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer James Watt made the most significant improvements, allowing the steam engine to be used in many industrial settings, not just in mining. Early mills had run successfully with water power, but the advancement of using the steam engine meant that a factory could be located anywhere, not just close to water.

In 1775 Watt formed an engine-building and engineering partnership with manufacturer Matthew Boulton. This partnership became one of the most important businesses of the Industrial Revolution. Boulton & Watt served as a kind of creative technical center for much of the British economy. They solved technical problems and spread the solutions to other companies. Similar firms did the same thing in other industries and were especially important in the machine tool industry. This type of interaction between companies was important because it reduced the amount of research time and expense that each business had to spend working with its own resources. The technological advances of the Industrial Revolution happened more quickly because firms often shared information, which they then could use to create new techniques or products.

Like iron production, steam engines found many uses in a variety of other industries, including steamboats and railroads. Steam engines are another example of how some changes brought by industrialization led to even more changes in other areas.

The development of the stationary steam engine was an essential early element of the Industrial Revolution, however it should be remembered that for most of the period of the Industrial Revolution the majority of industries still relied on wind and water power as well as horse and man-power for driving small machines.

Thomas Savery's engine

The industrial use of steam power started with Thomas Savery in 1698. He constructed and patented in London the first engine, which he called the "Miner's Friend" since he intended it to pump water from mines. This machine used steam at 8 to 10 atmospheres (120-150 psi) and had no moving parts other than hand-operated valves. The steam once admitted into the cylinder was first condensed by an external cold water spray, thus creating a partial vacuum which drew water up through a pipe from a lower level; then valves were opened and closed and a fresh charge of steam applied directly on to the surface of the water now in the cylinder, forcing it up an outlet pipe discharging at higher level. The engine generated about one horsepower (hp) and was used as a low-lift water pump in a few mines and numerous water works, but it was not a success since it was limited in pumping height and prone to boiler explosions.

Thomas Newcomen's engine

The first safe and successful steam power plant was introduced by Thomas Newcomen from 1712. Newcomen apparently conceived his machine quite independently of Savery, but as the latter had taken out a very wide-ranging patent, Newcomen and his associates were obliged to come to an arrangement with him, marketing the engine until 1733 under a joint patent [Hulse, David H: The Early Development of the Steam Engine; TEE Publishing, Leamington Spa, UK, 1999 ISBN 1 85761 107 1] . Newcomen's engine appears to have been based on Papin's experiments carried out 30 years earlier, and employed a piston and cylinder, one end of which was open to the atmosphere above the piston. Steam just above atmospheric pressure (all that the boiler could stand) was introduced into the lower half of the cylinder beneath the piston during the gravity-induced upstroke; the steam was then condensed by a jet of cold water injected into the steam space to produce a partial vacuum; the pressure differential between the atmosphere and the vacuum on either side of the piston displaced it downwards into the cylinder, raising the opposite end of a rocking beam to which was attached a gang of gravity-actuated reciprocating force pumps housed in the mineshaft. The engine's downward power stroke raised the pump, priming it and preparing the pumping stroke. At first the phases were controlled by hand, but within ten years an escapement mechanism had been devised worked by of a vertical "plug tree" suspended from the rocking beam which rendered the engine self-acting.

A number of Newcomen engines were successfully put to use in Britain for draining hitherto unworkable deep mines, with the engine on the surface; these were large machines, requiring a lot of capital to build, and produced about 5 hp. They were extremely inefficient by modern standards, but when located where coal was cheap at pit heads, opened up a great expansion in coal mining by allowing mines to go deeper. Despite their disadvantages, Newcomen engines were reliable and easy to maintain and continued to be used in the coalfields until the early decades of the nineteenth century. By 1729, when Newcomen died, his engines had spread to France, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Sweden. A total of 110 are known to have been built by 1733 when the joint patent expired, of which 14 were abroad. In the 1770s, the engineer John Smeaton built some very large examples and introduced a number of improvements. A total of 1,454 engines had been built by 1800.

James Watt's engine

A fundamental change in working principles was brought about by James Watt. With the close collaboration Matthew Boulton, he had succeeded by 1778 in perfecting his steam engine, which incorporated a series of radical improvements, notably the closing off of the upper part of the cylinder thereby making the low pressure steam drive the top of the piston instead of the atmosphere, use of a steam jacket and the celebrated separate steam condenser chamber. All this meant that a more constant temperature could be maintained in the cylinder and that engine efficiency no longer varied according to atmospheric conditions. These improvements increased engine efficiency by a factor of about five, saving 75% on coal costs.

The atmospheric engine could not at the time be easily adapted to drive a rotating wheel, although Wasborough and Pickard did succeed in doing so towards 1780. However by 1783 the more economical Watt steam engine had been fully developed into a double-acting rotative type, which meant that it could be used to directly drive the rotary machinery of a factory or mill. Both of Watt's basic engine types were commercially very successful, and by 1800, the firm Boulton & Watt had constructed 496 engines, with 164 driving reciprocating pumps, 24 serving blast furnaces, and 308 powering mill machinery; most of the engines generated from 5 to 10 hp.

The development of machine tools, such as the lathe, planing and shaping machines powered by these engines, enabled all the metal parts of the engines to be easily and accurately cut and in turn made it possible to build larger and more powerful engines.

Development after Watt

The development of machine tools, such as the lathe, planing and shaping machines powered by these engines, enabled all the metal parts of the engines to be easily and accurately cut and in turn made it possible to build more powerful engines.

In the early 19th century after the expiration of Watt's patent, the steam engine underwent great increases in power due to the use of higher pressure steam which Watt had always fiercely opposed.

Until about 1800, the most common pattern of steam engine was the beam engine, built as an integral part of a stone or brick engine-house, but soon various patterns of self-contained portative engines (readily removable, but not on wheels) were developed, such as the table engine. Further decrease in size due to use of higher pressure came towards the end of the 18th Century when the American engineer, Oliver Evans and his Cornish counterpart, Richard Trevithick began to construct non-condensing steam engines, exhausting against the atmosphere. This allowed an engine and boiler to be combined into a single unit compact enough to be used on mobile road and rail locomotives and steam boats.

But Trevithick was a man of versatile talents, so that his activities were not confined to small applications. He also introduced higher-pressure steam, - usually around 40psi (2.7atm) to large industrial engines, developing his large Cornish boiler with internal flue from about 1812. These were also employed when upgrading a number of Watt pumping engines, greatly increasing power and productivity; this led to the highly efficient large Cornish Engine that continued to be built right down to the end of the 19th Century.


* [ The Growth of the Steam-engine. Robert H. Thurston, A. M., C. E., New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1878.]
*cite book
last = Burstall
first = Aubrey F.
year = 1965
title = A History of Mechanical Engineering
publisher = The MIT Press
id = ISBN 0-262-52001-X

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