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Industrial History: The History of the Steam Engine

The history of steam engines dates back to the 1st century AD when the “aeolipile” was described by the Hero of Alexandria for the first time. More than 1500 years later, the primitive forms of turbines driven by the power of steam were explained by Taqi al-Din in 1551 as well as Giovanni Branca in 1629. These were either small steam jacks or escapement devices. They were mainly used by inventors to demonstrate that the power of steam shouldn’t be underestimated. 

There was a significant industrial challenge that miners faced during the 1700's and this was related to the extraction of water from deep mines. At this time, the true power of steam was showcased as the energy was used to pump up the water from deep within the mines. With this, the potential power of steam was discovered, leading to the invention of a full fledged steam engine. Steam-powered electrical power plants in the modern world came later. The basic principle on which the initial steam engines worked on was “condensation of water vapor to create a vacuum”.

Thomas Savery and the First Industrial Engines

Thomas Savery was the first person to invent a steam pump for the purpose of pumping out water in 1698. He called it “water by fire". The steam pump patented by him worked by boiling water until it was completely converted into vapor. The steam was then collected in a tank extracting every droplet of vapor from the original tank, thereby creating a vacuum in the original container. It was this vacuum that was employed to produce an adequate amount of energy to pump water out from the mines. This turned out to be a temporary solution as the energy could draw out water from the depth of only a few meters. Another drawback of this pump was that the steam pressure was being used to remove the water that was being drawn inside the tank. The pressure was too much for the boilers and there were several explosions as the boilers were not strong enough.

  • Thomas Savery: A biography of Thomas Savery with information about his engine.
  • Steam Engine Development: The article highlights the steam engine development covering Savery’s contributions and the atmospheric engines.

Low Pressure Engines

The high consumption of coal which was common in Newcomen’s steam engine was reduced through innovations in engine design by James Watt. The low pressure engine’s cylinder contained heat insulation, a separate condenser, and a pumping out mechanism for condensed water. In this manner, the low pressure engine was successful in reducing fuel consumption by more than 50%.

Ivan Polzunov and the First Two-Cylinder Steam Engine

Ivan Polzunov was a Russian inventor who built the first steam engine in his country. Polzunov’s two cylinder steam engine was more powerful than the English atmospheric engines. It had a power rating of 24 kw. Polzunov’s model of a two cylinder steam engine is presently displayed the Barnaul Museum.

  • Ivan Polzunov: The article provides information on how this Russian scientist built the two-cylinder steam engine.
  • Two Cylinder Steam Engine: Here’s a picture of a two cylinder steam engine from the 1880s.

Engine Developed by Thomas Newcomen

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen invented an effective and practical steam engine. The steam engine designed by him consisted of a piston or a cylinder that moved a huge piece of wood to drive the water pump. The engine did not use steam pressure to exert any pressure on the piston but it was the wooden piece that was heavier towards the main pump. It was gravity that pulled down the pump side of the wooden piece. The Newcomen engine remained in use for more than 50 years but they turned out to be inefficient as a lot of energy was required for the engine to run effectively. The cylinder was required to be heated as well as cooled every time, which used up most of its energy causing a huge amount of wastage.

James Watt’s Improvements

Finally, it was James Watt who revolutionized the steam engine by making use of a separate condenser in the original design. He came up with a separate condenser in 1765. The design saw itself take shape on a successful steam engine only 11 years later. The biggest issue with its implementation was the technology of creating a huge piston so as to preserve a moderate amount of vacuum. The technology saw great progress. When the financial backing became available, the engine was finally introduced in railways and ships. There were over 60,000 cars powered by steam during the years from 1897 to 1927 in the United States.

High Pressure Engines

It was during 1800 that Richard Trevithick invented engines with steam backed by high pressure. These turned out to be more powerful compared to all the engines invented previously but it was the engine design presented by Oliver Evans that became a success. It used the concept of steam for powering an engine rather than condensing steam and creating a vacuum. Evans came up with the first non-condensing and high-pressure steam engine in 1805. The engine was stationary and it was capable of producing 30 RPM (revolutions per minute). This engine was used for the first time to run a saw. The high pressure engines were backed up by huge cylindrical tanks filled with water that was heated by placing a heat source right below it in order to produce adequate steam.

In time, these steam engines were used in power boats and railways in 1802 and 1829 respectively. Almost half a century later, the first steam-powered automobiles were invented. Charles A. Parsons came up with first steam turbine in 1880. By the 20th century, the steam engine was widely used in automobiles and ships.

The Cornish Steam Engine

Richard Trevithick attempted to update the pumping engine made by Watt. It was modified to adapt to the Cornish boilers which Trevithick had designed. The efficiency of Cornish Steam Engines was subsequently improved by William Sims, Arthur Woolf, and Samuel Groase. The updated Cornish Steam Engines had insulated engine, pipes, and boilers for improved efficiency.

  • Richard Trevithick: Here’s a biography of this industrial genius.
  • Beam Engines: The Cornish World Heritage provides information on the development of steam engines in the mining industry in those times.
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