Origins of Steampower


| November/December 1995



Typical stack and engine house

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

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: