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Steam Power

Updated on December 2, 2016

No single person can be credited with the invention of the steam engine, though it is fairly certain that the cooking pot inspired many to investigate the possibility. As far back as r68o Robert Boyle and his French assistant Denis Papin (1647-1712?) introduced the first steam pressure cooker at a meeting of the then recently formed Royal Society of London. Papin dedicated his life to the development of a working steam engine, but like many other inventors died in poverty without realizing his ambition. His plans may have been used by others, for not long after his death simple steam engines built to his designs were being used to drive pumps in the tin mines of Cornwall.

James Watt (1736-1819), perhaps the most famous of the steam engineers, started life as an instrument maker in Glasgow and became interested in steam power as a result of his attempts to mend a working model of an early steam engine built by Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729), the Englishman who invented the atmospheric steam engine. This machine was very inefficient and. although Watt devised a number of improvements he was not able to perfect an engine which could use the full power of the expanding steam.

Like many other inventors who came after him, Watt's ideas had to wait development in other branches of engineering before they could be put into practice. Nevertheless, on his retirement in 1800, he was able to look back on a successful career as a creative engineer, which had included the founding of the profitable engineering firm of Boulton and Watt, developing steam engines that could power ships and factory machinery, and inventing the first automatic speed regulator or governor. He was also one of the leaders of the Industrial Revolution which, from the beginning of the 19th century, began to change the life and habits of men and women in many countries of the world.

In 1825 George Stephenson (1781-1848), following in Watt's footsteps, opened the first railway, which ran from Stockton to Darlington and, in 1830, after a great deal of opposition from those who feared this new steam age, opened the first passenger train service in the world.

The line, which ran from Liverpool to Manchester, was the scene of the famous Rainhill competition in 1829 to discover 'the most improved locomotive engine... the said engine effectively to consume its own smoke... be capable of drawing after it, day by day, on a level plane, a Train of Carriages of the gross weight of Twenty Tons'. The engine designed by George Stephenson and his son Robert (1803-59), the Rocket, now preserved in the London Science Museum, was the undoubted winner, reaching a speed of nearly thirty miles per hour during the journey. Locomotives based on the Stephensons' designs were eventually to open lines in many parts of the continent of Europe. Although improved locomotives were built as the steam age developed, no new principles of motive power were introduced into public rail services until the arrival of the electrical motor.

The Steam Turbine

Even the best piston steam engine of the 20th century is unable to reach an efficiency of more than twenty per cent because of the low working temperature of the engine, caused by the cooling down of the cylinder walls between each injection of steam. In 1884 Charles Parsons (1854-1931) built his first turbine engine which used the pressure of steam to blow continuously against a system of blades built around a central shaft.

In fact the turbine works in much the same way as the water wheel or windmill, converting pressure into rotary motion, but it works at a constant high temperature and is therefore more efficient. Its advantages as a ship's engine were soon recognized and today it has found a new lease of life as the most effective method of converting the heat produced in atomic power stations into useful electrical energy.

The internal combustion engine The demand for a simple, yet efficient, lightweight engine which could be operated by an unskilled driver and be switched on at will, without the need for a head of steam, led scientists to investigate other sources of energy such as inflammable gas, hot air, and finally gasoline vapor.

The first engine that was fairly reliable and sold in any numbers was developed by a Frenchman, J. J. E. Lenoir (1822-1900) in the 1860s. It worked on a two-stroke cycle and ran on illuminating gas. In Germany in I867 Nikolaus Otto (1832-91) invented and started production of a four-stroke-cycle engine, which is the type of engine used in automobiles today.

The internal combustion automobile was to have tremendous impact in America in the 1890s. The few cars that they had seen plus the news of great races being held in Europe fired the imaginations of literally thousands of backyard mechanics and machine shop owners. Two former bicycle builders, Charles E. (1861-1938) and James Frank (1869-1967) Duryea, are generally credited with building the first automobile in America in 1893. The next year, using a slightly improved model, they won the first American road race. In 1896 both Henry Ford (1863-1947) and Ransom E. Olds (1864-1950) built their first experimental models, and by the last years of the decade there were over fifty car makers. However it was Olds, with his curved-dash Oldsmobile runabout, that became the first successful American manufacturer when he sold 425 of them in 1901 and 5,000 in 1904. But it was Henry Ford who was to truly bring America into the automobile age in I908 with his famous Model T 'Tin Lizzie'.

Most cars up to this point had been expensive and often proved to be unreliable over the rough roads of the times. Ford realized that to be successful a car had to be rugged, reliable and inexpensive. He accomplished this by developing the assembly-line method of production, and by 1927 he had sold over 15 million of the 'Lizzies'. Ford's production line in Detroit marked the rise of America's, and possibly the world's, greatest industry.


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      Kieran Gracie 5 years ago

      Thank you, Chad, for a most interesting Hub. Voted accordingly. The development of the steam engine is a huge topic but you have managed to encapsulate it neatly in just a few paragraphs. Congratulations!