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The various elements of the steam engine had all been devised and applied by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Pressure was understood as was the vacuum created by the displacement of the air by steam and the subsequent condensation of the water vapor. The creation of a partial vacuum by condensation had been successfully used by Morland, Denis Papin, and Thomas Savery. Steam boilers capable of providing useful pressures had been made and their safety was facilitated by Papin's safety valve. Steam powered pistons had also been created and it only remained for an engineer to devise an efficient engine which could be harnessed to sustained useful work.

The first practicable, albeit crude, steam engine was demonstrated before the Royal Institution in 1698 and later in the same year obtained a royal patent for fourteen years for his "fire engine". It is possible that Savery based his machine on the designs for a high pressure steam engine of Denis Papin published in his De Novis Quibusdam Machinis published in 1690.

Thomas Hooke passed Papin's pamphlet to Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729), an ironmonger and blacksmith of Dartmouth in Devon with scant knowledge of mathematics, who devised the "Atmospheric Steam Engine". Newcomen joined forces with Savery who held the patent for condensing the steam in the cylinder of the engine in 1705.

The valves of these early steam engines were operated by hand and one such operator, a boy named Humphrey Potter, is creditted with having devised a system for operating the valves by means of strings attached to the engine thereby making himself redundant.

It is the high pressure steam engine which is traditionally explained at school where the steam pushes the piston to do work. These engines only made their appearance later. The piston in the "atmospheric" engine was raised by the steam from the boiler, helped by the weight of the pump rod attached to the opposite end of the beam. At the top of the stroke of the piston, a cold water spray was injected into cylinder which caused the steam to condense causing a partial vacuum. The upper surface of the piston was exposed to the air and atmospheric pressure would force down the piston to produce the "power stroke" which lifted the water.

Steam engines were further developed by John Smeaton (1724-1792) and James Watt (1736-1819). Watt was given a model of Newcomen's engine to repair in 1765 and realised that it could be improved by a separate condenser. He worked on the problem until he built a successful engine in 1776. He also devised the sun-and-planet gear to convert the reciprocating motion of the engine to the circular motion of the flywheel.

The "high pressure" steam engine, utilising the expansive force of the steam, was developed around 1800 independently by the Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick in Britain and Oliver Evans in America.

By the closing decades of the eighteenth century, steam engines were performing tasks as varied as the drainage of tin and copper mines in Cornwall, coal mines elsewhere, replacing the thausands of windmills required to drain the Low Countries, pumping water to supply London and other large connurbations and pumping the air required by blast furnaces to produce iron in large quantities. Steam engines also raised the water required by canals but, developed as steam locomotives in the 1820s and 30s, allowed the new railways which proliferated in the 1840s to supplant the canals.

The steam turbines which developed after the reciprocating steam engines are still used today for applications such as electricity generation, even in state-of-the-art nuclear power stations.


This time-line has been generated for this page from our general time-line
which you can view by clicking here or on the dates in the left-hand column

1651English translation of Glauber\'s Practise on Philosophical Furnaces describes a safety valve for releasing excess pressure in retorts and stills
1679Denis Papin invents his digester, a pressure cooker
Thomas Savery used Papin\'s digester to design the first working steam engine in 1698
1680Sir Isaac Newton designs a steam-powered road carriage
circa 1682French inventor Papin uses a safety valve (which he is usually creditted with inventing) on his digester (a pressure cooker) which was later adopted for steam engines
1690Denis Papin publishes his De novis quibusdam machinis on the steam engine
1698Thomas Savery of Devon patents a crude, but the first prcticable, steam engine
Savery had demonstrated the engine to the Royal Institution in the same year
1705Steam engine makers Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen join forces
1707Publication of Denis Papin\'s The New Art of Pumping Water by using Steam
1712Death of French inventor Denis Papin (1647-) in London
1729Death of British engineer Thomas Newcomen (1664-)
1765James Watt given a model of Thomas Newcomen\\\'s steam engine to repair and realises it can be imporved by adding an external condenser
1776James Watt produces his successfull steam engine
1780.Aug.23British patent granted to steam engine maker James Pickard for a crank to convert the reciprocal motion of the engine to the circular motion of the flywheel
1792Death of British engineer John Smeaton (1724-)
1800British engineer Richard Trevithick devizes a double-acting high-pressure steam engine used in the mines of Cornwall and South Wales.
1801British engineer Richard Trevithick devises a steam road carriage
Trevithick constructed the first passenger carrying steam engine known locally as the puffing devil at Penydaren
1804British engineer Richard Trevithick devises high-pressure steam locomotives to run in South Wales
1813British engineer William Hedley builds the Puffing Billy engine for a colliery railway near Newcastle
1814British engineer George Stephenson constructs the first practical steam engine
(see Railways)
1819.Aug.19Death of British engineer James Watt (1736-)
1825The Stockton and Darlington - the first passenger railway - opens, powered by steam and horses
Built by George Stephenson
1829George Stephenson consructs the Manchester and Liverpool Railway
1833.Jan.31Foundation of the Great Western Railway by Bristol businessmen (GWR) at a public meeting in the city
1848Death of the British railway engineer George Stephenson (1781-)

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