Summary of “The Origins of the Steam Engine” by Ferguson

When thinking of the creator of the steam engine or who started the industrial revolution many people think of James Watt. However, fifty years before Watt became popular in the public eye a man named Thomas Newcomen was building steam engines which pumped water out of mines.

Before Newcomen began work on his engine there were many devices used to remove water from mines. Newcomen’s invention provided the power needed to move the walking beams and in turn the pump shaft. Steam was injected into the cylinder drawing the beam up. Water was then injected into the cylinder. This water injection caused the steam to condense rapidly and create a vacuum. The vacuum would then pull the beam back down. This process was repeated over and over in a cyclic manner.


Newcomen Engine:

animation of the Newcomen engine:


Another engine was created around the same time by Thomas Savery. This engine was created to remove water from mines using a vacuum created by steam. This engine was developed and works differently from the Newcomen engine.  The Savery pump however could not remove water from deep wells and was used mainly for pumping water to reservoirs for the wealthy and for fountains. The limiting factor for the Savery Engine was the metalworking in the construction of the engine. With the quality at the time it could not withstand the pressure that would be necessary for pumping wells.

Savery Engine:

The image of the Savery pump is from this website. It also provides a detailed description of the mechanics behind the pump.


The Savery Engine needed better metals and better metalworking techniques to achieve its goal of pumping out mines. This pressure is seen throughout this time period from multiple different sources. New technologies forcing other tech in other fields to catch up. This is one of the reasons why technology progressed so rapidly throughout this timeframe. In the article Ferguson also states that science owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to science. This is very interesting and aligns very well with what we have learned in class. The Idea that technology comes before science can be seen very easily when studying steam engines. When Savery and Newcomen were creating their engines they did not understand every aspect of the thermodynamics and molecular physics behind why their machines work. Rather they understood, based on discoveries before them, what mechanics worked and what did not. It would not be until years later that the science behind the steam  engine would be totally understood.


Word Count (431)

  • Max McAllister


Animation of the Newcomen Engine:

Image of the Newcomen Engine:

Image of the Savery Engine:

5 Replies to “Summary of “The Origins of the Steam Engine” by Ferguson”

  1. Nice work Max, I really appreciated how detailed yet completely understandable your descriptions of the engines were. The included images and animations were helpful too. I also liked your connection between what we have learned in class and the bit about invention coming before science. It’s interesting to me to think about how these devices were created without scientific backing, through mere trial and error.

  2. I don’t know how else to state this other than fantastic analysis of the early steam engine designs/developments! You addressed multiple historical facts about the uses and designs (along with caveats) of various steam engines, and I personally loved your connection to what was taught in class: “technology comes before science.”
    As you stated, most of these inventors did not [truly] understand why certain technologies and principles worked the way they did – only that these concepts did work. I remember playing with Legos when I was a kid – specifically the gears and electric motors – and eventually figuring out that placing a small gear in series with a larger one meant that I could rotate/pull larger/heavier loads. I never had the slightest clue about torque or power or any of the stresses, only that this principle worked (and reversing the small-to-large gears meant the system ran faster). As you said, understanding why the principles of the steam engine worked in the manner they did was not important for this time – the fact that the steam engines could operate effectively/efficiently was the main priority and driving force.

    Again, fantastic job!
    Corwin A. Warner

  3. Great blog! I found it interesting that steam engines were originally used to pump water out of mines but later had their role expanded beyond water pumps and would be used for industrial use and eventually locomotives. Looking at the Ferguson article I saw that James Watt only supplied a third of the steam engines built during their patent monopoly. For this reason, I wonder why, despite having the most efficient engine, did Watt produce only a third of engines. Was it due to limits of production? Or less demand?

  4. Great job, Max! This was an interesting and informative blog post explaining the workings and development of the steam engine. I especially enjoyed the animation you included which made understanding how the engine worked easier.

    Keep up the good work!

  5. It is really cool how a technology can accomplish so much and be so effective at what it does for so long without the people who created and used it having a full understanding on why it works so well. Good job!!

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