Thomas Newcomen and the Steam Engine

Thomas Newcomen atmospheric engine

On February 26 (or maybe also 24), 1664, English inventor Thomas Newcomen was born, who created the first practical steam engine for pumping water, the Newcomen steam engine.

As we know from a previous article on James Watt and the Steam Age Revolution [5], Watt was the one improving Newcomen‘s engine in the 18th and 19th century. Since the knowledge about the power of working with steam had been around for a while it is to be assumed that Newcomen was not the first to come up with the idea, building a steam engine. And indeed previous engineers working on a similar engine were for instance the Italian physicist Giambattista della Porta around 1600 and, more importantly, the French physicist Denis Papin during the end of the 17th century and the English innovator Thomas Savery.[6] Papin constructed a model arrangement of cylinder and piston in which steam was admitted beneath the piston to move it up. [1] Savery patented his idea for using vacuum to draw water in 1698. He created the so far most efficient engine, but the pipes ruptured often and the force available for applying and raising water to the vessels was very limited.

Coming to Thomas Newcomen himself, why was he so motivated to build a steam engine, pumping water out of mines? Newcomen was born in Dartmouth, Devon in the early 1660‘s. He established himself as a well known ironmonger and to his big customer base belonged several mine owners, who repeatedly complained about the water flooding mines and endangering or even killing their workers as they made their way deeper and deeper into the mountains. Back then, workers were occupied with constantly removing the water with buckets, horses and roped, which was just too slow and expensive.

The common engines at that time used the condensed steam to create a vacuum, Thomas Savery‘s engine however used the vacuum to pull the water up. When suggested that Newcomen was to build a system against the flooding of mines, he instantly began experimenting, which took almost a whole decade. Newcomen combined the advantages of previous engines, especially from Savery‘s and Papin‘s devices and added his own, creating an engine that developed five horsepower. Newcomen‘s engine, the most efficient of that time, was going to commercialize his idea but had to take Savery into partnership, since he used some of his technology. Newcomen‘s engine spread widely, but he experienced only little profit and after Watt’s improved machine was distributed, Newcomen‘s became increasingly rare through the years. However, Newcomen was the first to create a successful steam engine, pumping water out of the dangerous minds and setting important standards for future engineering during the industrial revolution.

Comparatively little is known of Newcomen’s later life. After 1715 the engine affairs were conducted through an unincorporated company, the ‘Proprietors of the Invention for Raising Water by Fire‘. That society formed a company which had a monopoly on supplying medicines to the Navy providing a close link with Savery. Newcomen died at Wallin’s house in 1729. By 1733 about 125 Newcomen engines, operating under Savery’s patent, had been installed by Newcomen and others in most of the important mining districts of Britain and on the Continent of Europe: draining coal mines in the Black Country, Warwickshire and near Newcastle upon Tyne; at tin and copper mines in Cornwall; and in lead mines in Flintshire and Derbyshire, amongst other places.

The Newcomen Engine was by no means an efficient machine, although it was probably as complicated as engineering and materials techniques of the early 18th century could support. Much heat was lost when condensing the steam, as this cooled the cylinder. This did not matter unduly at a colliery, where unsaleable small coal (slack) was available, but significantly increased the mining costs where coal was not readily available. Newcomen’s engine was gradually replaced after 1775 in areas where coal was expensive by an improved design, invented by James Watt, in which the steam was condensed in a separate condenser.

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