Newcomen Develops the Steam Engine

Thomas Newcomen built the first steam engine, providing the power to operate pumps, mostly those needed to remove water from the coal mines that had penetrated ever deeper into the English landscape.

Summary of Event

A precursor of the defining development of the eighteenth century was the emergence of a new source of power, one that was neither human nor animal in origin, nor involving the use of wind or water. Newcomen’s steam engine, even though it was enormously costly to operate in terms of the fuel it consumed, did function as designed. It became the power source of choice as the eighteenth century progressed. [kw]Newcomen Develops the Steam Engine (1705-1712)
[kw]Engine, Newcomen Develops the Steam (1705-1712)
[kw]Steam Engine, Newcomen Develops the (1705-1712)
Steam engines
Machines;steam engines
[g]England;1705-1712: Newcomen Develops the Steam Engine[0220]
[c]Science and technology;1705-1712: Newcomen Develops the Steam Engine[0220]
Newcomen, Thomas
Hooke, Robert
Papin, Denis
Savery, Thomas
Smeaton, John
Watt, James

During the seventeenth century, individuals, especially in western Europe, had become increasingly observant of nature and how it determined the surrounding environment. People became devoted more and more to nature’s study. What came to be called “science,” that which embraced the observations of Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, and others, was proving to have many practical applications for shaping the environment and for ensuring human survival. Scientific study had led to the founding in England of the Royal Society Royal Society, England in the 1660’s; its members, who classified themselves as scientists, met regularly to discuss the results of their investigations. A leading member of the Royal Society was Robert Hooke, who corresponded with individuals investigating the possibilities of adapting atmospheric power to human endeavors. Atmospheric power—that is, the power of a vacuum—had been conclusively demonstrated in 1654 by Otto von Guericke.

The Royal Society, and particularly Hooke, promoted experiments that used the power of a vacuum created by turning water into steam and then rapidly reducing it again to water in a closed container. A French émigré, Denis Papin, who was a short-term employee of the society, built a rudimentary device that did just that; but he never developed it further. Yet it was on the basis of Papin’s designs that Thomas Savery, who became a member of the Royal Society in 1705, designed his device “for raising water by the impellent force of fire,” generally regarded as the first steam engine.

Thomas Newcomen came from the same part of England as Savery, but he lacked Savery’s connections to the governing elite. Born at Dartmouth in 1663, and continuing to live there throughout much of his life, Newcomen was an ironmonger, a dealer in products made of iron, and perhaps was also a blacksmith. This familiarity with metal was essential to his work with the steam engine. However, Newcomen was also fundamentally interested in science, for he carried on a correspondence with Hooke of the Royal Society, from whom he may well have learned of the experimental work of Papin.

Newcomen appears to have been working on a steam engine at the same time as Savery, but Savery, more attuned to the corridors of power, secured a patent on his device in 1698, and its broad description gave him an effective monopoly over the steam engine and its development until the patent expired in 1733. When Newcomen learned of the Savery patent, he realized that his machine was, in fact, covered by the Savery patent, and he therefore established a cooperative arrangement with Savery, so that the Newcomen engine was treated as a modification of Savery’s, although in fact it was different in fundamental ways.

Newcomen’s machine consisted of a brass cylinder, 21 inches wide and 7 feet, 10 inches long. It was fitted with a brass piston that rode inside the cylinder. There was also a separate boiler, in which water was turned into steam. The steam was then fed into the cylinder, pushing up the piston. This steam was then condensed back into water by cold water being fed into the cylinder. The condensation created a vacuum underneath the piston that pulled it back down in the cylinder. The piston was attached by a chain to a beam that was pulled down by the piston, activating a pump in a separate pipe, pulling up any water around the bottom of the pipe.

This process of feeding steam into the cylinder and then condensing it was repeated ten times a minute. Its effective power was 5.5 horsepower, not much above the force a horse could exert, but its practical advantage was that it could be powered by a coal fire that could be kept going all day long and all night, thus easily increasing the amount of water that the attached pump could pull up out of a mine. Over the next fifty years the size of the cylinders and pistons (soon made of cast iron rather than brass) grew until they reached approximately six feet in diameter, which generated substantially more power than Newcomen’s original engine. The coincidence of the development of Newcomen’s engine with the adaptation of coal to the production of iron was an important synergy that helps explain the rapid spread of the Newcomen engine.

Newcomen’s engine differed from Savery’s design in two important ways. First, it separated the pumping action from the steam-powered action; second, it pushed the water that condensed the steam directly into the cylinder, instead of spraying the cylinder on the outside. This latter feature enabled the later engines to be substantially enlarged, while still using the vacuum pressure (the “atmospheric” pressure) to be the operative force. This was necessary because the metallurgy of the time was not able to build cylinders and pistons that could withstand pressures higher than the atmospheric pressure. It was only late in the eighteenth century, in the steam engines designed by James Watt, that this restriction was overcome.

The first working Newcomen engine was installed in a mine near Dudley Castle in the vicinity of Wolverhampton in 1712. It worked successfully, and much is known about the engine because a drawing was made of it, published in 1719. Although technically covered by Savery’s patent, the patent restriction expired in 1733 and numerous Newcomen engines (many with iron rather than brass parts) were installed in the years following. The main problem with the Newcomen engine was its enormous use of coal to fire up the boiler, but since about half the Newcomen engines were installed at coal mines to operate the pumps, this was not really a defect.

It has been estimated that at least one thousand Newcomen engines were built during the eighteenth century; many were built after parts were ordered and a local engineer built the actual pump on site. The design, by John Smeaton, of a more effective water wheel (the breast wheel) increased the power that water wheels could produce and provided some competition for the Newcomen engine, but the Newcomen engine enjoyed the enormous advantage that it could be (and was) installed anywhere, not just where there was a good stream or river.


The significance of Thomas Newcomen’s improved steam engine cannot be overemphasized. For the first time, mechanical power in excess of that produced by animals or humans, by wind or water, could be applied to industrial tasks, and it could be done anywhere. Without the development of steam power the Industrial Revolution Industrial Revolution;steam engine would have been sharply contained and limited. Also, as the eighteenth century progressed, and new developments took place in metallurgy, far more powerful engines were built, namely the 1769 steam engine of James Watt, engines in which the power of the steam itself was used to activate the machinery. It was Newcomen’s engine, however, that underlay the Industrial Revolution.

Further Reading

  • Briggs, Asa. The Power of Steam: An Illustrated History of the World’s Steam Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. This volume, replete with illustrations of different forms of steam engines, also explains in detail the evolution of the concept of using steam as a source of power.
  • Cardwell, Donald. Wheels, Clocks, and Rockets: A History of Technology. 1995. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Contains an extensive description of the operating principles of Newcomen’s engine.
  • Kanefsky, John, and John Robey. “Steam Engines in Eighteenth Century Britain: A Quantitative Assessment.” Technology and Culture 21, no. 2 (1980): 161-186. The authors determine the approximate number of Newcomen engines that were built in the eighteenth century.
  • Mokyr, Joel. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. This work, and others by the same author, an economic historian, assesses the role of Newcomen’s engine in the economic progress of the developed world.
  • Petroski, Henry. “Harnessing Steam.” American Scientist 84, no. 1 (January/February, 1996): 15. Petroski recounts how the steam engine was invented, including a description of Newcomen’s engine and its application in the eighteenth century.
  • “Puffed Up.” Economist 353, no. 8151 (December 31, 1999): 99. A history of the steam engine, describing Newcomen’s invention and how it was used before it was redesigned by Watt. The article also analyzes the impact of the steam engine on the Industrial Revolution and on the millennium ending in 1999.
  • Rolt, L. T. C., and J. S. Allen. The Steam Engine of Thomas Newcomen. New York: Science History, 1977. The best story of both the life of Newcomen and the particular steam engine he invented. A fine introduction for amateur or engineer. Includes numerous engravings, drawings, charts, and photographs of steam power equipment as well as a list of all the known engines built by Newcomen and later builders before the Savery patent expired in 1733. Good bibliography.
  • Usher, Abbott Payson. A History of Mechanical Inventions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954. Rev. ed. New York: Dover, 1988. Explains in detail the working of Newcomen’s engine.
  • Wilson, C. H. “The Growth of Overseas Commerce and European Manufacture.” In The New Cambridge Modern History, edited by J. O. Lindsay. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1957. Sets the Newcomen engine in context.

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Machines;steam engines