Steam Theme at Newcomen Museum

Newcomen Steam Engine

Operating scale model Newcomen mine-pumping atmospheric steam engine

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Steam is the theme at the Newcomen Museum, a unique institution west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The welcome mat is out for steam collectors, school students, and all members of the public who want to learn more about the history of steam power, and to see superbly made working models of famous engines.

Full title of the facility is The Thomas Newcomen Memorial Library and Museum in Steam and Business History.

Mrs. Nancy Arnold, librarian/ curator, who conducts tours of the museum and relates its history and services, emphasizes that Thomas Newcomen was the first person to design a working steam engine, and that his work preceded James Watt's by more than half a century.

A model of Newcomen's mine pumping atmospheric steam engine is on display just one of the many that would please any steam buff visiting the museum.

Here is a partial list of models you can see:

Table engine, 1837; electrically operated; table engine, 1840, electrically operated; single cylinder steam engine, about 1865, used for driving small factory machinery, electrically operated.

Grasshopper beam engine, about 1879; electrically operated; tandem-compound Corliss engine, housed as used in a textile mill, about 1895, electrically operated, and Tangyes twin-cylinder horizontal factory engine, about 1908.

Then there are six models built by the late George Eli Whitney, whose name lives on in the Pratt-Whitney history. These are salesman's models, which are worked by turning of a crank to substitute for steam. They include a compound marine engine with pumps, about 1890, and a hot air engine, about 1885. These models are especially pleasing to the eye, because of their high polish and intricate design.

Just one traction engine model is on display a Burrell general purpose, made in England, dated 1897. The day we visited the museum, a large model including two Corliss and two marine engines was being examined after being received from a donor in Arizona. One of the most famous of all U.S. steam loco motives, The General, is among the working model railroad engines on exhibit. During the Civil War, The General was captured by the Union and recaptured by the South. Other model locomotives are also on view.

Mrs. Arnold has developed an impressive knowledge of Newcomen's steam capabilities, the functions of the models on display, and the extensive library which is housed in the handsome buildings near Downing-town.

The organization which owns and operates the museum, and has its headquarters in the complex of buildings, is the Newcomen Society in North America. Its name honors the Englishman who lived from 1663 to 1729, and who invented his steam engine and demonstrated it in 1712.

Newcomen was a maker of iron tools, and made trips from his home at Dartmouth to sell them. On visits to tin mines in Cornwall and Devon, he saw horses used for pumping water from mines, at high cost and low efficiency. He invented a 'fire engine' to draw water from the pits. His engine provided that major means for draining mines and supplying towns with water for 60 years.

James Watt was later, 1736-1819. Watt, an inventive genius in his own right, was called in to repair a Newcomen engine at a time when 900 of this type of engine were in use in the British Isles and Europe. In 1765, Watt invented the separate condenser, which the Newcomen Society hails as 'the greatest single improvement ever made in the steam engine.'

A brochure published by the Society contains a brief history of developments in steam.

Mrs. Arnold tells youngsters and adults about steam and the total energy picture. Her explanations make operation of the models easy to understand. She includes facts in relation to steam and its application which enliven her presentation.

As a librarian she is pleased with the vast collection of books owned by the Society. These books are available for reading and reference, on the property only, since many are very old, rare, and highly valuable. There are also manuscripts, which may be examined on request.

The Society's headquarters is, appropriately enough, on Newcomen Road. The library is open Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Mrs. Arnold is glad to arrange tours, but suggests advance arrangements for groups. Tours can be made on weekends, if you arrange beforehand. Telephone (215) 363-6600. Street address is: 412 Newcomen Road, Exton 19341. Newcomen Road intersects Route 100 not far from the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The Society was founded in 1923 by L. F. Loree, who was at that time the dean of American railroad presidents. Its purpose is the study of business, industrial, and institutional history and development. It seeks to dramatize the story of the steam engine and steam power from Newcomen's time to the present era of utilization of nuclear-fueled steam.

Publications of the Society include many on business firms and other objects, based on papers read at Society meetings or symposiums. Donald T. Regan, later to become U.S. Treasury Secretary, read one on 'The Merrill Lynch Story' at a national meeting last December. Another deals with a Newcomen symposium on Wyoming Energy, held at Cheyenne, with the state's Governor Ed Herschler as a participant.

Charles Penrose, Jr., is president of the board of trustees elected by the organization's 17,000 members. Close ties are maintained with the Newcomen Society for the Study of History and Engineering, and Technology, of London, England, and the Royal Satiety for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce, also in London.

The Dartmouth Newcomen engine can be seen in operation at Newcomen's home in South Devonshire.