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inventor of the forerunner of today's pressure cookers and autoclaves
Denis Papin was born in Blois, France, on August 22, 1647. Although he received a medical degree from the University of Angers in 1669, there is no evidence to suggest he ever actually practiced medicine.
Moving to Paris about 1673, Papin was taken on by Christiaan Huygens as a research worker for the Académie Royale des Sciences. In this capacity he worked on Huygens' idea of using gunpowder to create a vacuum under a piston allowing pressure from the outside air to force the piston down. In 1675 Papin moved to London where, upon recommendation by Huygens, he got a position with Robert Boyle, and may have been responsible for improvements to Boyle's later air pumps.
In 1679 Papin exhibited a "digester" to the Royal Society. This device consisted of a vessel provided with a tightly fitting lid so that under pressure its contents could be raised to a high temperature. A safety valve was used, for the first time, to guard against an excessive rise in the pressure. A direct forerunner of today's pressure cookers and autoclaves, the "digester" made faster cooking possible. He was admitted to the Royal Society in 1680, the same year he published Continuation of New Experiments. He published a description of his digester in 1681, under the title A New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones.
Papin next accepted an invitation to Venice to take part in the work of the Academy of the Philosophical and Mathematical Science, and remained there until 1684. Returning to London in 1684, he received from the Royal Society an appointment as Temporary Curator of Experiments. While working in such capacity, he constructed a model of an engine for raising water from a river by means of pumps worked by a water wheel driven by the current, but was never able to obtain financing for a working engine.
In 1687 Papin obtained his first "real job," chair of mathematics at the University of Marburg. Within a year of taking this position he had invented the earliest form of centrifugal pump, which was used in local drainage work; he applied the same principle to the ventilation of a coal mine. Neither version was widely adopted.
In 1690 Papin developed an engine that used a combination of steam and atmospheric pressure to move a piston. The device consisted of a three-inch-diameter vertical tube that was filled halfway with water and sealed at one end with a movable piston. Heating the cylinder converted the water into steam. The steam pushed the piston up until, at its highest position, it was grabbed by a fastener at the head. As the steam condensed the atmospheric pressure pushed the piston back down. The power stroke thus occured during the condensation phase rather than the steam phase. Papin hoped he could used this engine to drive a ship, transmitting the motion of a row of pistons through racks and pinions to paddle wheels, but he was unable to obtain any financing for the project.
left: drawing of Papin's atmospheric pressure engine
In 1696 Papin found a patron in the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (Germany), who asked him to build an engine that could lift water to a defined height and then release it into an elevated garden or fountain. Papin's engine used a free-swimming piston which prevented the steam from condensing on the cold water surface. But, after the joints and valves of the prototype machine leaked, the Landgrave lost all interest in Papin's work. He spent the next several years working on a variety of machines.
Papin took up steam engine research again in 1705, after receiving a sketch of Thomas Savery's steam engine. Recognizing the superiority of Savery's machine to his own, Papin set out to make improvements to the basic design. His principal improvement was to incorporate a piston, instead of a vacuum chamber, to provide suction. One prototype was built; it caused a stir locally, but was not exploited and eventually dismantled.
right: drawing of Papin's modifications of Savery's steam engine
In 1707 Papin published The New Art of Pumping Water by Using Steam. That same year, he revived his notion of a steam-driven paddle-wheel boat, and decided to return to London as there would be more call for such a ship in a great port. A small manually operated paddle-boat had been tried out on the river Fulda, in Germany, but was smashed up by local boatmen afraid of potential competion. In London, Papin tried to persuade the Royal Society to sponsor his boat, asking for no more than £15 to cover the cost of the boiler, but was unsuccessful.
How Papin spent his last years is unknown. The last conclusive evidence of him was a letter dated January, 1712, and he is believed to have died sometime later that same year.
This page was last updated on 02/14/2017.