Origins of Steampower

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Typical stack and engine house remains in Cornwall, from a National Trust brochure.
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A drawing by Henry Beighton 1717, probably of his engine at Oxclosc. From an ASME 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

‘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.

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