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.

Steam Engines

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.

Dewatering the Mines

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. The advance of these mines into ever greater depths made it necessary to design efficient machines for pumping out the penetrating groundwater. Back then, workers were occupied with constantly removing the water with buckets, horses and roped, which was just too slow and expensive. From the 14th century onwards, special water lifting machines were used in mining. In the beginning, these machines were driven by human muscle power, later by horses by means of horse-cannons.

Newcomen’s Engine

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. His machine used water injection to cool and condense the water vapour in the cylinder. This created a vacuum in the cylinder chamber so that the air pressure acting on the piston from outside or the normal pressure of the outside air pushed it back into the cylinder. The machines used until then simply waited for condensation until the volume content in the cylinder chamber cooled down by itself via the material of the piston and the cylinder as heat conductor – caused by the colder outside air – Newcomen’s invention thus enabled significantly higher piston cycles.

Partnership with Savery

The first Newcomen machine was installed in a Staffordshire coal mine in 1712. It operated without a crankshaft and flywheel via a balancer on the pumps to be driven. The connection between the piston and the balancer was realized via a chain. The efficiency of the machine was only 0.5 percent.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 patented 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.

Newcomen’s Later Life

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.

Newcomen vs Watt

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. Despite Watt’s improvements, Common Engines (as they were then known) remained in use for a considerable time, and many more Newcomen engines than Watt ones were built even during the period of Watt’s patent, as they were cheaper and less complicated. Of over 2,200 engines built in the 18th century, only about 450 were Watt engines.

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