Steam Engine Origins

The steam engine is an innovation that had lasting effects on the industrial revolution in Britain and the modern era. Utilizing the properties of steam, thermal energy could be converted to work in a system. However, it is important to consider how this idea resulted in what we all think about today: the Watt engine. To do this, we must consider the demand for such an engine and the demand’s circumstances.


However, before launching into this background information, it is important to note that Ferguson’s article, The Origins of the Steam Engine, is wrong to place the origin of the steam engine in England when, in fact, it was not some sudden idea. Ferguson references Savery’s engine, which utilizes the varying pressures of two different vessels to create a vacuum that would draw water upwards, to be the starting point. However, he does this injustice by saying that this idea simply came from others, specifically mentioning Saloman de Caus. Saloman de Caus was a French engineer who died about 25 years earlier than Savery was born that wrote on the subject extensively and even provides an illustration of the same idea in his book Les Raisons des Forces Mouvantes. De Caus’ illustration exemplifies the large similarity between his and Savery’s machine. So, this begs the question of why the steam engine did not become popular in France before it did in England. This has to do with the way the innovation was used. The key difference between the two inventors was that de Caus, an avid gardener, used the Steam Engine for either gardening or water fountains. Slowly, this information diffused into the other courts of Northern Europe and made its first stride in England through his younger brother, Isaac de Caus, when he was employed as an architect and landscaper and physically brought the steam engine idea to Lincoln’s Inn and the Wilton House. On the other hand, Savery used it for a much more functional purpose over form.


In England, during Savery’s time, there was a big problem that had been bothering miners: water. Taking water out of the mine was a very laborious and time consuming process. As a result, this cost mining companies, which already required a large amount of starting capital, quite a bit in expenditures. This water problem is what Ferguson calls the main, driving reason why steam power became popular. This, again, is another dubious claim by the article due to the fact that water being in mines was no new problem, presenting itself as far back as in Agricola’s works. The origin of the steam engine did not come from the demand of water logged mines for this reason.


As with many engineering developments, the chief source of the innovation being applied is simple: money. Savery heavily marketed his innovation to miners and Newcomen engines were designed purely with the purpose of raising water out of a mine and was later applied to other industries after many others witnessed its success. The Newcomen engine was unique from Savery and de Caus in the fact that Newcomen was not an engineer but just a lay man that took an interest in the technology and started making a profit off of it. Newcomen hadn’t really been exposed to this at all but the concepts were already there and they were just waiting for someone to take advantage of them. So, he did just that by modifying Savery’s design by including a piston. Another man called Watt was motivated by the same drive by patenting the design and improving it. Watt did not stop there and saw a real potential in converting thermal energy to kinetic energy for application in the real world. He did so by condensing the steam in the chamber attached to, but separate from, the main steam cylinder. After this double-acting engine, where steam moved the piston both upwards and downwards, Watt kept this piston mechanism but made the vertical piston join the arm with a special joint to maximize the angular acceleration of the arm. Also, as another advancement from the Newcomen engine, Watt made it so the speed of the engine can be manipulated so a desired work can be put out by controlling the steam rather than the furnace.


The steam engine didn’t just happen overnight but was motivated by the coming of a new economic age where a rising business class could afford to spend money on such inventions to benefit their capital.