Thomas Newcomen

Thomas Newcomen

Thomas Savery, one of two sons of Richard Savery, was born at Modbury, Devon, in about 1650. He became a military engineer, and spent his spare time on mechanical experiments, and in 1696 he patented a machine to grind and polish plate glass. (1)

One of the major problems of mining for coal, iron, lead and tin in the 17th and 18th centuries was flooding. Miners used several different methods to solve this problem. These included pumps worked by windmills and teams of men and animals carrying endless buckets of water. (2)

Denis Papin, a French mathematician, invented the steam digester, a type of pressure cooker with a safety valve. Savery used Papin's idea of using a cylinder and a piston to design a pumping engine which incorporated two different ways of utilizing steam to generate power. Steam was pumped into a cylinder and then cooled so that a vacuum was formed and atmospheric pressure drew water up. (3)

On 25th July 1698 Thomas Savery obtained a patent for fourteen years. The patent contained no description of the machine, but in June 1699 it was shown to members of the Royal Society. In 1702 he published a book about the invention entitled The Miner's Friend.

Savery established a workshop at Salisbury Court, London. At this workshop, mine and colliery owners could see the engine demonstrated before purchase. However, the engine could not raise water from very deep mines. Another disadvantage was its tendency to cause explosions.

According to his biographer, Christopher F. Lindsey: "It is doubtful that any machines were actually sold for use in mines, although at least two were later installed for water-supply purposes in London, namely at Campden House, Kensington, and at the York Buildings waterworks in Villiers Street. The engine was satisfactory for raising water short distances, but the intense heat required to lift water from greater depths, as in mines, tended to melt the soldered joints of the machine, which lacked proper safety features and used energy inefficiently." (4)

Thomas Newcomen, an inventor from Dartmouth worked on this problem and he eventually came up with the idea of a machine that would rely on atmospheric air pressure to work the pumps, a system which would be safe, if rather slow. The "steam entered a cylinder and raised a piston; a jet of water cooled the cylinder, and the steam condensed, causing the piston to fall, and thereby lift water." (5)

As Jenny Uglow has pointed out: "Newcomen's engines exploited basic atmospheric pressure, building on the way had been found to rush into a vacuum. A vacuum could be created by sucking air out of a closed vessel with a pump, but it could also be created by using steam." (6)

Savery continued to work on the development of other machines. In 1706 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and also patented a double hand-bellows, which could melt any metal in an ordinary wood or coal fire. He also worked on "a new sort of mill to perform all sorts of mill-work on vessells floating on the water", but no patent seems to have been granted. (7)

Thomas Savery died at his home in Marsham Street, Westminster, on 15th May 1715.

Thomas Savery... became a military engineer, and by 1696 had attained the rank of trench-master. He spent his spare time on mechanical experiments, and in 1696 he patented (no. 347) a machine to grind and polish plate glass, and a contrivance for rowing ships in a calm using two paddle-wheels worked by a capstan. William III thought highly of the second invention, but although Savery demonstrated its practicability by fitting it to a small yacht, official jealousy prevented its adoption in the navy. Undeterred, he published an account of his invention in a work entitled Navigation Improved (1698), and this contained a denunciation of his treatment in official circles.

Savery, who lived at Exeter for a time and whose youth was spent near a mining district, had often turned his attention to the difficulty of keeping the mines free from water. To remedy this he invented a machine for raising water, and on 25 July 1698 he obtained a patent (no. 356) for fourteen years, which was extended by an act of parliament passed on 25 April 1699 for a further twenty-one years. The patent contained no description of the machine, but this deficiency was supplied in a book which he published in 1702, entitled The Miner's Friend. A model of the machine, which raised water by utilizing steam pressure and the vacuum produced by the condensation of steam, was demonstrated to William III at Hampton Court, and in June 1699 shown to members of the Royal Society.

In the seventeenth century, the French scientist and inventor Denis Papin, who worked all over Europe, often in London, devised a form of steam pressure engine using a cylinder and a piston. But there was a big problem with harnessing steam to drive machinery: boilers and cylinders and all the essential parts of such an engine would have to be not only airtight and watertight but also immensely strong, for the steam would be generated under pressure. If you boil water in a sealed cylinder, it will explode: there was always a danger attendant on working with steam engines.

One of the first practical attempts to harness the power of steam was made by Thomas Savery, a well-educated scientist and inventor who was granted a patent in 1698 for his machine for `raising water by fire'. Savery drew on the earlier experiments of Papin and others, such as the Marquess of Worcester, to design a pumping engine which incorporated two different ways of utilizing steam to generate power. Steam would be pumped into a cylinder and then cooled so that a vacuum was formed and atmospheric pressure drew water up. In another cylinder, the pressure of steam itself forced water out. For this pumping engine to work continuously, all kinds of stopcocks and valves had to be opened and closed every minute or so by a frantic engine man. Savery's pumping engine worked - he demonstrated models at Hampton Court and to the Royal Society and installed some to work fountains or raise water from the River Thames. However, they were not effective for the task he really wanted them to perform, which was draining water from tin, copper and coal mines. He called his treatise on the machine The Miner's Friend.

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(1) Christopher F. Lindsey, Thomas Savery : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) John S. Allen, Thomas Newcomen : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(3) Gavin Weightman, The Industrial Revolutionaries (2007) page 50

(4) Christopher F. Lindsey, Thomas Savery : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(5) Charles R. Morris, The Dawn of Innovation: The First American Industrial Revolution (2014) page 42

(6) Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men (2002) page 98

(7) Christopher F. Lindsey, Thomas Savery : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)


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