The Steam Engine
"The wonderful progress of the present century is, in a very great degree, due to the invention and improvement of the steam engine, and to the ingenious application of its power to kinds of work that formerly taxed the physical energies of the human race."~Robert H. Thurston
The steam engine can easily be considered the single most important invention of the entire industrial revolution. There is not one part of industry present in today's society that can be examined without coming across some type of reference or dependence upon the steam engine. But, who deserves the credit for this great invention? Some give the credit to James Watt while others claim that Thomas Newcomen was the original inventor. However, the idea of the using the power of steam to the advantage of human beings has been around practically since the beginning of time. But, no practical uses for steam emerged until the 17th century. The majority of people will tell you that the steam engine was invented by James Watt. But, this is far from the truth. Like all other great inventions and great discoveries, the steam engine came about after centuries of work by numerous scientists, engineers and even writers. It came from a compilation of work and theories that took centuries to complete. If James Watt was not the first to create the steam engine, who was? How did James Watt end up with all of the credit for the invention? Was he just the one that was there at the right time and in the right place? Is it true that James Watt discovered the steam engine when he observed the lid of a kettle lifting as water boiled within? Those are the questions that we are out to answer. But, keep in mind that "...inventions only become successful when they are not only needed, but when mankind is so far advanced in intelligence as to appreciate and to express the necessity for them, and to at once make use of them"~Robert H. Thurston. The idea using the power of steam to our advantage goes back nearly twenty-one centuries. A learned writer in ancient Alexandria, named Hero, wrote a manuscript describing various devices and ideas of the time. Although it is not proven that Hero was the inventor of any of these devices, he is given credit for the earliest mention of steam power. Hero describes a method to open the doors of a temple with the action of a fire on the alter at the front of the temple. The picture below on the left shows Hero's plan. A series of pipes runs between the alter and the temple doors. The force of the steam created by the fire on the alter is strong enough to open the temple doors. The essential principle that Hero used was to change heat energy into mechanical energy or work. Supposedly, Hero continued his work and ended up creating what is often called the "First Steam Engine." Hero's engine is featured on below on the right. The cauldron or bowl like portion AB holds water. There is a steam tight cover place over top of the cauldron. Two pipes extend from the lid and suspend a globe directly above the cauldron. The water is heated, causing steam to be created and forced through the pipes. The globe then fills with steam. Pipes K and H are located on opposite sides of the globe and allow the steam to escape when the pressure becomes uneven. The escaping steam then causes the globe to spin on its axis.
The power of steam has always existed in our environment. It has been shown constantly through natural occurrences all around us. But, man did not make the power of steam useful until the beginning of the Christian era. Even after the development of Hero's engine, it took hundreds of years until any single person found a practical use for this awesome power. Humans never saw a need to harness the power of steam because the labor and toil of slaves and animals was sufficient for everything that needed to be done. Experiments with steam began to...
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