Savery Patents the First Successful Steam Engine Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Steam power, especially when produced by burning coal in place of wood, made the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century possible. Savery’s invention showed how steam power could be used to do important industrial work, but it would take many incremental improvements before an efficient and effective steam engine would be produced.

Summary of Event

Behind the religious politics that took center stage in the first half of the seventeenth century, a revolution was occurring in the way people thought about the world around them. In some respects, this revolution began with Francis Bacon, Bacon, Francis who challenged the deductive reasoning that had been the hallmark of medieval scholastic thought. The leading thinkers of the latter half of the seventeenth century challenged the old style of reasoning in other ways as well, notably by insisting that facts as they were observed in nature should be the basis of one’s understanding of reality. [kw]Savery Patents the First Successful Steam Engine (July 25, 1698) [kw]Engine, Savery Patents the First Successful Steam (July 25, 1698) [kw]Steam Engine, Savery Patents the First Successful (July 25, 1698) Science and technology;July 25, 1698: Savery Patents the First Successful Steam Engine[3080] Inventions;July 25, 1698: Savery Patents the First Successful Steam Engine[3080] Engineering;July 25, 1698: Savery Patents the First Successful Steam Engine[3080] Economics;July 25, 1698: Savery Patents the First Successful Steam Engine[3080] England;July 25, 1698: Savery Patents the First Successful Steam Engine[3080] Steam engine, invention of

Underlying the successful development of the steam-propelled pump was the realization that the atmosphere has weight and that its weight causes it to surround Earth. The creation of an airless vacuum would therefore create a force sufficient to pull water into the airless space to fill up the vacuum. Linked to this understanding was the realization that water turned into steam would take up more space than would the same amount of water in its liquid state. Thus, when a closed cylinder was filled with water that was then boiled to make steam, the pressure resulting from the expanding water vapor in the container would force outward any vessel in which it was contained. If the steam were then turned back into water, it would leave a vacuum that could be used to power a water pump but with the limitation that the force could only be as strong as that of the atmosphere seeking to fill the vacuum.

The first person to build a successful air pump was Otto von Guericke Guericke, Otto von , an official of the German city of Magdeburg, in 1650. Robert Boyle Boyle, Robert , seventh son of the earl of Cork, who had learned of Guericke’s accomplishment, also built one in 1659. Boyle demonstrated his device to the Royal Society, the collection of scientific luminaries established by Charles II, Charles II (king of England);Royal Society and king of England, in 1662. Thus, the concept of a pump whose force was derived from the vacuum in a closed vessel was becoming widely known at the time that Thomas Savery Savery, Thomas began his experiments.

An exiled French Huguenot, Denis Papin, Papin, Denis who worked in close collaboration with Robert Boyle, built a cylinder-and-piston device in the 1690’s that provided the basic concept that was used in the Savery engine, but for reasons unknown, did not pursue this idea further. Some of his ideas may have been incorporated in Savery’s engine, which Savery demonstrated before the Royal Society in 1699.

A factor that played an important part in stimulating the work of men like Savery was the severe shortage of wood fuel in seventeenth century England. To replace wood, men turned to the use of coal, and England’s coal deposits were aggressively mined to supply the demand, but as coal near the surface was mined out, men had to dig deeper into the earth to get the coal, and this posed a problem, because the deeper mines tended to fill with water. To make possible continued exploitation of the mines, it was highly desirable to find an efficient way to pump the water out of them, and this was the primary use envisaged for a workable steam-powered pump.

However, for the system to work effectively, a sealed vessel had to be created capable of holding a vacuum sufficient to act as the propulsive force in such pumps. Engineering skills in the late seventeenth century were relatively limited, and it was extremely difficult for Savery and others to make two metal vessels that would fit tightly together, as would be necessary to create a pump vessel with a piston inside it. This limit in engineering technology limited in turn the amount of power that could be created: It was well understood that if the steam power could be increased, the pull of the vacuum could also be increased, but all the early attempts to do this foundered, because inventors could not create a containing vessel capable of withstanding the higher pressures they desired to harness. Many explosions resulted from their attempts. Engineering;steam engine and

The concept embodied in Savery’s pump was of a containing cylinder with a piston inside it. The water in the cylinder was heated and the steam pushed the piston up in the cylinder. Then the steam was cooled by pouring cold water over the cylinder, and the pressure of the air seeking to fill the vacuum thus created provided the propulsive force to bring water up in a pipe. It was intended that this method would be used to bring up the water gathering in the bottom of coal mines. However, the application turned out to have limited value, because it soon became clear that the force of the atmosphere could pull up water in a contained pipe only 32 feet (10 meters). Dual pipes could double that figure, but it was not enough to pump water out of mines that were 100 feet (30 meters) deep and more.

A number of Savery’s pumps were installed following their development, and they enjoyed a wide reputation. Well-documented use of them in mines is, however, lacking. The pump appears to have been used chiefly on a number of gentlemen’s estates to create water displays, highly popular at the time. Nevertheless, the combination of cylinder and piston was the basis of all steam-powered mechanical devices that provided artificial power that could be used wherever natural sources, such as wind (as in the Dutch windmills) or water (as in waterfalls on streams and rivers) were not available. It was the availability of this artificial power source, particularly as improved by Thomas Newcomen, Newcomen, Thomas who began working with Savery in the first decade of the eighteenth century, that made the Industrial Revolution possible.


Because Savery’s pump was protected by a patent that ran until 1733, Thomas Newcomen was obliged to work with him in developing his own steam engine. Newcomen’s engine, however, provided significant improvements over Savery’. In particular, Newcomen separated the pump from the propulsive part of the engine, using a series of valves to transfer the vacuum to the pump. By this means, he was able to avoid having to cool the steam in the cylinder back to water to create the necessary vacuum. Although a number of Savery pumps were built, even after Newcomen had produced his improvements, it was the idea of using fire and steam propulsion that constituted the giant leap forward that was embodied in Savery’s invention.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Briggs, Asa. The Power of Steam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. With profuse illustrations, this book lays out the progress of steam propulsion from Savery onward.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lynch, William T. Solomon’s Child: Method in the Early Royal Society of London. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001. Makes clear the central role played by the Royal Society in developing empirical science, without which many of the technical advances of the next century would have been impossible.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rolt, L. T. C. Thomas Newcomen: The Prehistory of the Steam Engine. London: David & Charles, 1963. Contains a clear description of Savery’s pump, as well as descriptions of the work of contemporaries who contributed ideas that played a part in developing the pump. It must, however, be used with caution as it contains a number of factual inaccuracies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sandfort, John F. Heat Engines. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1962. Describes the scientific background to the development of the steam engine, complete with drawings of some early pumps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schafer, Simon, and Stever Shapen. “’Leviathan’ and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life.” In Science in Europe, 1500-1800, edited by Malcolm Oster. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Depicts the role of Boyle in creating, in the Royal Society, in effect a modern scientific laboratory.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Robert Boyle; Charles II (of England); Otto von Guericke; Denis Papin; Thomas Savery. Steam engine, invention of

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