Thursday April 29, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Steam Engine

On this Day:

In 1769, Scottish engineer James Watt’s patent for a steam engine with a separate condenser was enrolled (Patent 913).  However, this was not the first attempt at using steam power. Not by a whistle.

The first recorded rudimentary steam engine was the aeolipile described by Heron of Alexandria in 1st-century Roman Egypt. Several steam-powered devices were later experimented with or proposed, such as Taqi al-Din’s steam jack, a steam turbine in 16th-century Ottoman Egypt, and Thomas Savery’s steam pump in 17th-century England. In 1712, Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric engine became the first commercially successful engine using the principle of the piston and cylinder, which was the fundamental type of steam engine used until the early 20th century. The steam engine was used to pump water out of coal mines.

During the Industrial Revolution, steam engines started to replace water and wind power, and eventually became the dominant source of power in the late 19th century and remained so into the early decades of the 20th century, when the more efficient steam turbine and the internal combustion engine resulted in the rapid replacement of the steam engines. The steam turbine has become the most common method by which electrical power generators are driven.

What is interesting is that investigations are being made currently into the practicalities of reviving the reciprocating steam engine as the basis for the new wave of advanced steam technology.  Steam has a new head of steam!

But back to James Watt.

James Watt FRS FRSE (30 January 1736 (19 January 1736 OS) – 25 August 1819) was a Scottish inventor, mechanical engineer, and chemist who improved on Thomas Newcomen’s 1712 Newcomen steam engine with his Watt steam engine in 1776, which was fundamental to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in both his native Great Britain and the rest of the world.

While working as an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, Watt became interested in the technology of steam engines. He realised that contemporary engine designs wasted a great deal of energy by repeatedly cooling and reheating the cylinder. Watt introduced a design enhancement, the separate condenser, which avoided this waste of energy and radically improved the power, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of steam engines. Eventually he adapted his engine to produce rotary motion, greatly broadening its use beyond pumping water.

Watt attempted to commercialise his invention, but experienced great financial difficulties until he entered a partnership with Matthew Boulton in 1775. The new firm of Boulton and Watt was eventually highly successful and Watt became a wealthy man. In his retirement, Watt continued to develop new inventions though none was as significant as his steam engine work.

He developed the concept of horsepower, and the SI unit of power, the watt, was named after him.

And, of course, here is the legal twist to the steam engine:

Edward Bull started constructing engines for Boulton and Watt in Cornwall in 1781. By 1792 he had started making engines of his own design, but which contained a separate condenser, and so infringed Watt’s patents. Two brothers, Jabez Carter Hornblower and Jonathan Hornblower Jnr also started to build engines about the same time. Others began to modify Newcomen engines by adding a condenser, and the mine owners in Cornwall became convinced that Watt’s patent could not be enforced. They started to withhold payments due to Boulton and Watt, which by 1795 had fallen. Of the total £21,000 (equivalent to £2,190,000 as of 2019) owed, only £2,500 had been received. Watt was forced to go to court to enforce his claims.

He first sued Bull in 1793. The jury found for Watt, but the question of whether or not the original specification of the patent was valid was left to another trial. In the meantime, injunctions were issued against the infringers, forcing their payments of the royalties to be placed in escrow. The trial on determining the validity of the specifications which was held in the following year was inconclusive, but the injunctions remained in force and the infringers, except for Jonathan Hornblower, all began to settle their cases. Hornblower was soon brought to trial and the verdict of the four judges (in 1799) was decisively in favour of Watt. Their friend John Wilkinson, who had solved the problem of boring an accurate cylinder, was a particularly grievous case. He had erected about twenty engines without Boulton’s and Watts’ knowledge. They finally agreed to settle the infringement in 1796. Boulton and Watt never collected all that was owed them, but the disputes were all settled directly between the parties or through arbitration. These trials were extremely costly in both money and time, but ultimately were successful for the firm (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

I miss the old railway locomotives where the engineers had plenty of esteem.

Second, a Song:

Editor: Not everyone had a working steam locomotive chugging close by when they were growing up.  I was fortunate in having the regular passage during the summer months of a steam locomotive (the Prairie Dog Central I believe it was) a mere block from my house.  You can’t ever forget the wail of the whistle, the thunder, sound and feel of a steam locomotive as it passes you by; hopefully at some point you were fortunate to have a ride on one.

Here is a video of the steam locomotives of the Sandaoling coal mine in China.  At night, the steam locomotives are a rolling fireworks display, shooting fiery red coal sparks and giant clouds of steam into the air. 

After sunset the locomotive illuminates the countryside, in a fiery glow, while pulling a long train of box cars filled with coal up a steep grade, as the steam engine works at maximum.

The Sandaoling Coal Mine is located 80 Km from Hami in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of North West China (from I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“Electricity is an example of a general purpose technology, like the steam engine before it. General purpose technologies drive most economic growth, because they unleash cascades of complementary innovations, like lightbulbs and, yes, factory redesign.” – Erik Brynjolfsson

Further to the Mutiny on the Bounty Smile, Frank Fowlie of Richmond, BC, Canada writes:

“Bligh made land in Koupang, on the island of Timor.  Koupang is now the capital of the Indonesian province of West Timor.  The other half of the island being the new country of East Timor!”


Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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