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.

6 thoughts on “Steam Engine Origins

  1. aarong says:

    Great post! The format is awesome. The steam engine was definitely used differently in different cultures. Just as gunpowder was used for celebratory purposes in China and for weaponry in the west, the steam engine was used more as an entertaining toy as early as the first century AD by Hero of Alexandria. As such, Ferguson was indeed wrong to say the steam engine originated with Savery in England. As you stated, Saloman de Caus researched the topic of steam engines extensively in France. Unlike Savery, de Caus, used his engine for more luxurious purposes such as gardening. Savery, however, applied the concept of steam power to the more practical purpose of mining. The steam engine clearly demonstrates how different cultures use the same technology for different purposes.

  2. Corwin Warner says:

    As you mentioned, the development of the steam engine was largely driven by monetary reasons regardless of the developer/inventor. I found your mention of Watt patenting a design for the steam engine catching my interest, as what portion of the steam engine did he patent? The double-action design? Regardless, acquiring a patent enables a monopolization of a process/technique/design for a period of time (20-25 years typically), and this lines up perfectly with your point on development being driven by monetary means.
    Here is a link to a photo of a steam engine based on Watt’s design just for extra support:
    I also liked your reference that steam engines were originally marketed and designed for pumping water out of mines. You also mentioned that eventually the steam engine was applied to other industries – what were some of these industries?
    Great summary!

  3. jwill0620 says:

    This is an excellent post! I applaud you for pointing out the fallacies in Ferguson’s article because it gives readers a proper understanding of the true origins of the steam engine. The steam engine was used in many cultures in various ways. For instance, Saloman de Caus used his engine for gardening while Savery applied it to mining. This shows the versatility of the steam engine and why it became such a popular invention in many countries.

  4. Joel Scarbro says:


    This is an intriguing rebuttal. I also found Ferguson’s article seemed to over-simplify the precedents for steam engines. I agree that, like many inventions, the steam engine was the child of growing economical/technological development and ancient occupational restrictions. I enjoyed the discussion of different cultures or societies using the steam engine for unique tasks. The French engineer Saloman de Caus using his steam engines for gardening while the English engineer Savery applying his to mining reminds me of how the Chinese was using gunpowder for celebrity reasons, such as fireworks, long before the English used it for weaponry. It also shows an early indication of Wednesday’s discussion of how mass production started in the armories and diffused into other occupations over time. My question would be, why the mining water issue overshadowed the agricultural benefits of the steam engine? Had society already began to gravitate to a new, more industrialized mindset? Perhaps Savery was more driven by the monetary value of his machine than de Caus as you mentioned.

  5. Kailey Deane says:


    I really liked the way that you pointed out that that the steam engine was not an innovation that was created overnight. Ferguson did touch on the subject that Savery, Newcomen, and Watt were not the original inventors of the technology, but not to the extent that was added in this blog post. That, and the fact that the steam engine was used for different applications depending on location, really ties into the society and technology connection. I also liked that you mentioned that Ferguson was incorrect when stating that the steam engine originated in Britain; I would not have known differently.

    Overall, great summary! I wish there was more information on the Newcomen engine, though.

  6. laurenmunson says:

    Very interesting post! Pointing out misconceptions of the steam engine was a new way to look at things and made for a very informative blog. Another important take away is that well-known technology depends not only on its origin, but on the ways it is used. I had not thought of this before, and it made me wonder what other pieces of technology were effected in the same way. Great point of view!

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