Ferguson “The Origin of the Steam Engine”

One of the most popular and heavily discussed historic inventions was the steam engine. However, the invention of the steam engine is mistakenly credited to James Watt. In reality, the development of the steam engine took place over many years and was approached by many people. Thomas Survey and Thomas Newcomen are two examples of those involved with innovating the steam engine during the 18th century. During this time, the concept of the steam engine was being explored for use in creating pumps that could drain water from mines.

Thomas Savery was able to obtain a patent for his pumping technology, but his mechanisms were never put to use in mines, as they were not powerful enough to drain them. Instead, Savery’s technology was used for small scale applications, such as in fountains. Thomas Newcomen, however, was successful in created pumping technology that could be used in mines.

Newcomen’s technology, which was powered by a steam engine, included many elements, including a boiler, piston, piston rod, and vertical lifting pump. One of the main aspects of his pumping mechanism was a beam, which was pulled down on one end to “lift” water from deep in the mine. Although the concept of steam engines was being approached by many people at the time, Newcomen was able to able to create an inherently new system that would be used and improved upon for years to come.

Two generations later, James Watt was able to develop his steam engine technology by drawing inspiration from Newcomen’s technology. From here, Watt was able to increase the efficiency and speed of steam engines. Watt kept the multiple components of Newcomen’s design, especially the beam, but incorporated two new ideas: a double-acting engine and straight-line linkage. The double-acting engine used two steam cylinders that alternated in direction, which lead to the ability of automatic control. Watt’s straight-line linkage combined two previous technologies, a straight linkage with a parallelogram-style linkage. In addition, unlike Newcomen, Watt powered his steam engine through an electric motor. From his improvements, Watt was able to control the speed of pumping using centrifugal force. His innovations also lead to the eventual invention of self-regulating pumps.

By improving upon Newcomen’s technology, Watt was able to create a pumping mechanism that was two times as efficient. However, all of Watt’s aspects were not invented by Watt himself. For example, there are examples of dual-cylinder pumps in Newcomen steam engines. This alludes to the belief that, based upon the amount of people working on steam engines and mine pumps, someone would have created the technology at some point, even if Newcomen or Watt had not.

The steam engine is a prime example of a technology that was not approached by a single person, but instead came about from continuous innovation and varying needs of a society. The steam engine went on to be used in many different aspects of life, not just for mines. The technology went on to be incorporated into factories and transportation, including trains and ships. Many historians even credit the Industrial Revolution to the multi-useful steam engine. Regardless of the actual inventor, the affects of the steam engine expanded years after its invention and spread to many different applications.


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Picture: Watt Steam Engine Pump

Watt’s Steam Engine