Image Description

The Birth of the Steam Engine

Problems in the Mining Industry

The mining industry in the eighteenth century was very primitive. All the work was done by hand, and problems with water ingress and flammable and poisonous gases meant that pits could not extend very far or deep. There was also the problem of illumination since the use of naked flames, and the ever-present danger of flammable gases being released was a dangerous combination.

Some of these problems took over 150 years to even begin to resolve – but mining remained a very dangerous activity.

But the problem of flooding began to be addressed in the early 1700s. The cost of drainage was high with simple pumps operated manually or powered by donkey or by windmill. Thomas Savery was a military engineer, and in 1698 he patented a steam pump. Savery advertised this for use in mining from 1702. It was not a steam engine in the sense of Thomas Newcomen's or James Watt's, rather steam was admitted into an empty chamber which was then sealed. The steam cooled, creating a vacuum. A pipe from the vessel was put into the water to be raised, and a tap opened, sucking it into the vessel. A pipe to the surface of the mine was then opened, and more steam admitted to the vessel, pushing the water up the pipe and out of the mine.

There were many problems with the pump, partly due to the poor engineering capabilities of the time, and partly because the distance that water could be sucked into the vessel and then pushed out was very limited. It is believed that it was only effective to a depth of around 30 feet.

Thomas Savery was granted a patent that covered all methods of pumping water using steam for 21 years.

Thomas Newcomen

Thomas Savery's steam pump was highly inefficient, but he held a patent that covered all methods of pumping water using steam. It is likely that Thomas Newcomen knew Savery. Newcomen was an ironmonger in Dartmouth Devon. He did a lot of work with mines and became familiar with Savery's pumping engine, and he worked out how it could be improved.

Thomas Newcomen replaced Savery's vacuum vessel with a piston, which was then used to work a beam engine which then operated a pump. This method was more efficient and effective than Savery's simple steam pump.

Restricted by Thomas Savery's patent, however, Newcomen went into partnership with him around 1712, and Newcomen's more advanced design was marketed under Savery's patent.

Thomas Savery's pump was not successful in the mining industry, but Thomas Newcomen's steam engine was. Newcomen died in 1729, but the company he had formed with Savery continued. By 1733 about 125 of Newcomen's engines had been installed to pump water out of mines across Britain and Europe.

Indeed, Newcomen's engines dominated in the mining industry even after the introduction of James Watt's improved engines – the relative inefficiency of Newcomen's engine was not a problem where the coal was mined!

By 1770 about 600 Newcomen engines had been produced. Their use continued into the nineteenth century as they were cheaper to build and simpler to maintain that James Watt's engines.

James Watt

James Watt is the most famous name in the history of the steam engine, and his innovation was certainly a major step forward in engine design. But James Watt charged high prices, and it took thirty or forty years for his designs to really take hold in industry.

Working as an instrument maker in the University of Glasgow, James Watt was asked to repair the model of a Newcomen engine in 1763. Already interested in steam as a source of power, Watt realised that Newcomen's design was very inefficient because the piston had to be heated and then cooled in the same cycle, and he began to experiment with ways to improve the design. In 1765 he came up with the idea of a separate condenser. Steam was vented from the piston and condensed in a separate chamber. Thus, the piston could be kept hot, and the engine would be much more efficient and faster.

Money was tight, and James Watt became a land surveyor in 1766, working on a number of projects, including the Monklands Canal from Glasgow to Coatbridge – this canal greatly reduced the price of coal in Glasgow and stimulated industrial growth in the city.

During this time, Watt continued his experiments in steam power and in 1768 received funding from John Roebuck and Joseph Black to produce a working engine. John Roebuck was the mastermind behind the Carron Ironworks – which we will come to later - while Joseph Black was an influential chemist whose work helped further the industrial revolution.

John Roebuck registered a patent for the steam engine in 1769, and the first engine was installed at the Carron Ironworks in 1776. However, John Roebuck had gone bankrupt in 1772, and Matthew Boulton bought his patent. James Watt moved to Birmingham in 1775 and set up a partnership with Matthew Boulton. The firm of Boulton and Watt would play a major role in powering the industrial revolution.

Boulton and Watt

Matthew Boulton was a successful manufacturer of metal products in Birmingham, but his business really took off after the partnership with James Watt. Matthew Boulton had extensive contacts in the engineering and metal industries giving James Watt access to the most advanced techniques of the time. These contacts included John Wilkinson, who had invented a metal boring machine in 1774. This was used to bore iron cannons, but it also enabled Boulton and Watt to make precision-engineered cylinders and pistons for their steam engines. This and other advances made Watt's steam engines much more reliable and efficient.

The first four Boulton and Watt engines were installed in 1776. Two of them were used to pump water at mines, and one was used to operate the blast furnaces at John Wilkinson's ironworks.

James Watt's engine used about half the coal of Newcomen's, and his company developed an innovative sales technique. They sold their engines on the basis of an annual payment, equal to one-third of the value of the coal saved in comparison to a Newcomen engine performing the same work. However, Boulton and Watt did not gain much business from the coal mining industry – they had abundant coal available and continued to use the Newcomen design of engine being cheaper to install and easier to maintain.

Further Improvements to the Steam Engine

James Watt did not rest of his laurels. With Matthew Bouton, he realised that up and down motion of the beam engine limited its use. In 1781 James Watt patented a gear – called the Sun and Planet gear – that converted the power to a rotative motion suitable for grinding, weaving, and milling. Boulton and Watt steam engines began to power the factories of the industrial revolution.

Further improvements were patented in the 1780s, which added together to make Watt's engines five times more efficient than a Newcomen engine. It is believed that Boulton and Watt had sold around 600 engines by the time their patents expired in the early 1800s

James Watt retired a wealthy man in 1800 and died in 1819. The firm of Boulton and Watt continued, still making steam engines, until 1895 when it was bought by W T Avery, the manufacturer of weighing scales. Boulton and Watt's famous Soho Foundry in Birmingham remains the headquarters of the Avery company.

James Watt was a prolific inventor. As well as the steam engines he is famous for, he invented a commercially successful copying machine that was in use in businesses until the early twentieth century. He also developed a method for bleaching cloth in 1788, although this was superseded by Charles Tennent's invention of bleaching powder in 1799.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson, we move onto the age of steam locomotion.

Image Description
Written by

Ross Maynard