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|The Newcomen Steam Engine
Thomas Newcomen, an English hardware store owner, was the first to build a steam engine that was practical both economically and in terms of its ability to perform a specific task. His accomplishment played a key role in developing the power source that drove the machines of the new industrial age for over a period of two centuries.
left: an original Newcomen engine
When Newcomen began to develop his engine, he did so because he had become interested in the possibility of using steam power to work the pumps that kept the tin mines in Cornwall from flooding. At the time, these pumps were operated by horses.
Newcomen began his experiments with the assistance of John Calley, a fellow tradesman and plumber, in his native town of Dartsmouth. It took the two men 10 years to develop the world's first practical piston engine. The first one reported in use was constructed in Staffordshire in 1712. Newcomen was prevented from getting a patent, however, because Thomas Savery, an English military engineer, had already patented a steam engine that operated on the same principles as Newcomen's; the two men decided to form a partnership to manufacture and market the Newcomen mine engine.
right: drawing of a Savery and Newcommen engine erected near Dudley Castle in 1712
Newcomen's engine worked as follows:
Steam entered a vertical cylinder (2) above the boiler (1), pushing up the rod (3) that rocked the heavy crossbeam (4). This in turn worked the pump (5). Water (6) admitted into the cylinder then condensed the steam, so that a partial vacuum was created and the atmospheric pressure forced the piston down again as the water drained away.
left: engraving of the workings of Newcomen's engine
The engine proved successful, even though the piston cycle had the disadvantage of wasting heat, and hence energy. The cylinder had to be cooled all the way down and heated all the way up again in the course of each completed movement of the piston. Air and other vapors tended to accummulate in the cylinder, sometimes bringing the engine to a standstill. Nonetheless, Newcomen engines were put to extensive use throughout Britain, as well as continental Europe. The incorporation of automatic valves gradually improved performance, and some Newcomen engines, with modifications, still survived as working machines into the early 20th century.
This page was last updated on January 18, 2017.