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The Age of Steam - Newcomen and Watt

Updated on October 20, 2017
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Eugene is a qualified control/instrumentation engineer Bsc (Eng) and has worked as a developer of electronics & software for SCADA systems.


The Industrial Revolution

The first practical steam engine was developed by Thomas Newcomen in the early eighteenth century. Steam was one of the driving forces behind the industrial revolution, allowing mills and other factories to be located away from rivers. Originally water which turned mill wheels was the source of power for machinery. James Watt and others improved the design of steam engines in the late eighteenth century and by the early nineteenth century, more compact engines using high pressure steam were built. These could be used in traction engines and were small and light enough to be used in the locomotives of the time, an example of which was Robert Stephenson's Rocket.

Robert Stephenson's "Rocket", the first practical steam locomotive.
Robert Stephenson's "Rocket", the first practical steam locomotive. | Source

Victorian Technology

One of my passions is Victorian technology. In an era before computers, electronics, plastic, high complexity, miniaturization and radio communication, the order of the day was technology based on simple engineering principles. The materials which were used by Victorian engineers were steel, cast iron, cut stone, wood and brass, as well as natural fibers such as jute and hemp. Rivets held everything together before welding was invented. The internal combustion wasn't invented until the late nineteenth century and the driving force for machinery in factories, mines and on farms was the steam engine.

Steam Tractor
Steam Tractor | Source

Steam Traction

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, steam tractors, also known as road locomotives were used as traction engines on farms for pulling trailers and wagons. The traction engines could also drive large circular saws, the power being transferred via a large flat belt from the flywheel on the engine. These saws were used to cut logs into planks. Steam tractors could also power a threshing machine which separated the grain from corn. These machines were the predecessors of the combine harvester.

Steam tractor at a steam rally in Stradbally, Ireland
Steam tractor at a steam rally in Stradbally, Ireland | Source
Tractor lineup at a steam rally in Stradbally, Ireland
Tractor lineup at a steam rally in Stradbally, Ireland | Source
No. 186 the oldest mainline locomotive in Ireland (1879)
No. 186 the oldest mainline locomotive in Ireland (1879) | Source

Steam Locomotives

Steam locomotives are wonderful! Big noisy brutes pushing out steam and smoke, certainly not environmentally friendly! Unlike modern locomotives which are featureless square blocks, the steam train locomotive has character, it is dynamic and you can see a lot of the working parts. When traveling on steam excursions and passing through stations or along the coast or the countryside, these machines always seem to make adults and children smile. Maybe it's because of watching too many episodes of "Thomas the Tank Engine" or because toy engines are often made to look like steam locomotives.



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    • eugbug profile image

      Eugene Brennan 5 years ago from Ireland

      Hi jsasson, thanks for the comments. I was reading about Operation Pluto a few days ago on Wikipedia. This WWII op involved laying pipes across the English channel to carry gas/petrol to northern France to supply military vehicles after the invasion. During trials in England, diesel tugs were tested to see what their tractive effort would be for pulling piping. Steam tugs were also tested but they pulled the testing equipment out of the quay wall and so these boats were chosen! Steam engines have full power and consequentially torque available immediately, unlike diesel engines.

    • jsasson profile image

      jsasson 5 years ago from Florida

      Great tractor pics. We were at Steamtown USA just a little while back. Amazing how fast these old locomotives can accelerate off the roundtable into the shed. You'd think it was going to come out the other side!

    • eugbug profile image

      Eugene Brennan 5 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks, yes these are wonderful old machines!

    • jdnyc profile image

      JR 5 years ago from California

      Great pictures! I especially liked the steam tractors!