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Steam Engine: The Invention that Steered the Industrial Revolution
The industrial revolution is considered one of the most significant chapters in human history that transformed the world from an agrarian and handicraft economy to an industrial and machine manufacturing economy. It carried the world to new heights like never before. However, the one invention that remained the backbone of the industrial revolution was the steam engine. It facilitated powerful advancements in transportation, agriculture, mining and manufacturing. But did you know who invented the steam engine? Today, let's find out the history behind this mighty invention.
While we look into the history behind the invention of the steam engine, we'll come across the names of many prominent science personalities of the 18th and 19th centuries. But the history of steam-powered machines goes back nearly 2,000 years before the industrial revolution. Hero of Alexandria or Heron, a Greek inventor who lived in the first century AD, is credited with the invention of the world's first steam engine. Heron's aeolipile, or the primitive steam turbine, consisted of a hollow sphere mounted on a pair of tubes that carried steam. The sphere had tubes opening at its equator through which the steam escaped, allowing it to rotate. The whole system would be attached to a platform, below which the water boiled with the help of fire to produce steam.
While Heron's aeolipile was created as a novelty, it demonstrated the potential of steam for propulsion. Attempts to modify Heron's model and harness it into practical use were made in the 17th century to solve a significant industrial challenge of removing water from deep mines. By then, coal, replacing wood, had become the primary fuel source for Europeans. Mines were deepened to increase coal production, leading to constant flooding that affected production. English inventor and engineer Thomas Savery was the one who came to the rescue. Savery invented the first commercially used steam-powered pump with hand-operated valves and patented it in 1698. A Spanish mining administrator, Jerónimo de Ayanz's name is also associated with the creation of steam-powered water pumps.
A cylinder filled with water was the central part of Savery's steam pump. The cylinder would then be filled with steam, displacing the water, which would flow through a one-way valve. After completely expelling the water, the cylinder will be sprayed with cold water to condense the steam inside, which creates a vacuum that draws in more water to refill the cylinder. The success of Savery's steam-powered pump led to more inventions using steam power.
The early nineteenth century saw significant advances in high-pressure steam engines, which were far more efficient than Watt's and other early steam-engine designs.
Inspired by Savery's design, Thomas Newcomen invented a much more effective and practical piston and cylinder steam engine. The piston design efficiently separated the water being pumped out from the cylinder used to generate pumping force. Newcomen's steam engine was more powerful that could draw water from deeper mines, and it remained in use for more than 50 years. In 1766 Russian inventor Ivan Polzunov built the first two-cylinder engine in the world.
By the second half of the 18th century, Scotsman James Watt modified Newcomen's design to create a viable piece of machinery that kick-started the industrial revolution. He redesigned the machine to keep the piston cylinder at a consistent temperature, which resulted in increased fuel efficiency. Watt also created an engine that could rotate a shaft instead of pumping up and down. He also made a flywheel that allowed for smooth power transmission between the engine and the workload. Watt's design was capable of creating powerful machines that became applicable to various factory processes. Watt and his business partner, Matthew Boulton, built several steam-powered engines for industrial use. The Boulton-Watt engine boosted the industrial sector and "powered" the revolution.
The early nineteenth century saw significant advances in high-pressure steam engines, which were far more efficient than Watt's and other early steam-engine designs. The result was smaller, more powerful and more versatile steam engines. The new machines had many applications, from powering trains and boats to industrial tasks, such as running saws in mills. American Oliver Evans and Englishman Richard Trevithick were the two engineers behind the updation of these engines.
Besides these prominent names, many others are also associated with the refinement of steam engines. Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot, Richard Trevithick, George Stephenson, William Symington and Robert Fulton are some of them. Though steam engines got replaced by internal combustion engines in the later years, they remain integral in electrical power production today.