Origins of Steampower

Typical stack and engine house

Typical stack and engine house remains in Cornwall, from a National Trust brochure.

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Memories of the beginnings of use of steam energy for power are very much alive in parts of England where early inventors found the ways to put steam to work.

We visited some of this historic territory a few months ago in Devon and Cornwall. Among the most impressive of the monuments to the early days of steam are the remains of old stone stacks and engine houses which provided the means for removing flood waters from the mine workings. You will be driving along when suddenly you will see these, sometimes a chimney alone, relics of the time when no one had yet attempted to utilize steam to power vehicles on either land or sea.

Thomas Savery is given credit for having been the first to design a machine for keeping mines dry and providing water supplies to towns. The Columbia Encyclopedia says of his invention: 'Although not a steam engine in the modern sense, this machine was the first to provide power by harnessing steam.'

It was called 'The Miner's Friend' and was patented in 1698.

Thomas Newcomen was next, working first from Savery's patent and then adding developments of his own in a big way. Newcomen is memorialized in a museum in Dartmouth, Devon, which we visited and where we saw the Newcomen Memorial Engine, one he actually designed, now installed for the world to see. The engine has received all kinds of citations as an International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, with accolades from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Savery Society and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. You see the way a Newcomen engine works.

The brochure at the museum tells how Newcomen's engine operated:

'He employed a vertical open-topped cylinder in which a piston moved. This piston was connected by chains to one end of a massive rocking beam, to the other end of which were chained the pump rods that went down into the mine. Steam was admitted into the cylinder from the boiler placed below, and the weight of the pump rod moved towards the top of the cylinder and drew in steam. At this moment water was sprayed inside the cylinder and a vacuum created into which the piston was forced by atmospheric pressure, rocking the beam and thus creating a stroke of the engine.'

The Hawkesbury engine which was moved to Dartmouth in 1963 as the Newcotnen Memorial engine. Drawn by Dr. C. T. G. Boucher. From an ASME brochure.

Newcomen and his associates kept busy turning out engines for use in Britain as well as in Europe. Josiah Horn-blower, a son of one of Newcomen's associates, constructed the first engine to be built in North America. This was set up at the Schuyler Copper Mine in what is today North Arlington, New Jersey. Most of the parts were shipped in 1753; the Smithsonian Institution in Washington now has a section of the cylinder of the engine.

Camborne, Cornwall, was the home of Richard Trevithick, born in 17 71, known as 'Father of the Locomotive.' Trevithick was a busy inventor who is honored annually in April by owners and operators of steam-powered traction engines, who converge on the flag-decked streets for a special celebration of his genius.

An Automobile Association guidebook says that 'Trevithick unquestionably did more for the development of the steam engine than anyone else.' He built his first locomotive in 1802, but halfway up a hill it ran out of steam and coasted back to the bottom. He was successful with later models. His other steam inventions included a lift, a dredger and a mowing machine. A statue of him, holding a model of a locomotive, stands in front of the Camborne public library.