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Newcomen, Thomas

NEWCOMEN, THOMAS

(b. Dartmouth, England; christened 24 February 1663; d. London, England, 5 August 1729), steam technology.

Newcomen is renowned as the inventor of the steam engine. He was descended from an aristocratic family that had lost its property during the reign of Henry VIII. His grandfather and father were merchants and nonconformists, and Newcomen followed them in both respects. During the 1680’s he became an ironmonger in partnership with John Calley, an artisan and fellow Baptist who later collaborated with him on the development of the steam engine. Newcomen became a leader of the local Baptists and often preached to their congregations. His formal education appears to have been rudimentary, and he published nothing. Few details are known of his personal life or of the circumstances that surrounded his invention.

Newcomen’s first successful engine, which was erected in the Midlands in 1712, was the reward of years of trials and tinkering. The increasingly troublesome problem of removing water from mines had already provided the stimulus for attempts by Newcomen and others to design an improved machine to serve either as a pump or as an engine to drive a pump. In 1698 Thomas Savery (also of Devon) invented a steam pump which he protected with a broad patent that covered all “vessells or engines for raiseing water or occasioning motion to any sort of millworks by the impellent force of fire.” Because of the scope of Savery’s patent, Newcomen was later prevented from patenting his own engine and was required to build his engines under license from Savery, although his work was entirely independent of Savery’s and his engine was totally different from Savery’s pump.

Newcomen’s engine was an ingenious combination of familiar elements: piston and cylinder, pumps, levers, valves, and the process of producing low pressure by the condensation of steam in a vessel. The key invention, which was the injection of cold water directly into the cylinder, was hit upon accidentally in the course of experiments that used cold water jackets to produce condensation. Later James Watt significantly increased the efficiency of the engine through his invention of the separate condenser (1765), which avoided the necessity of alternately heating and cooling the cylinder. Nevertheless, unmodified Newcomen engines continued to be used long after Watt’s improvement, but because of their low efficiency, they were confined largely to collieries, where coal was cheap.

At the end of the eighteenth century John Robison propagated the belief that Neweomen’s achievement somehow depended upon the application of scientific principles gained through an alleged correspondence between Newcomen and Robert Hooke. (Robison advanced a similar claim for the derivation of Watt’s separate condenser from Joseph Black’s theory of latent heat.) Robison’s allegation has been discredited; the records reveal no contact whatever between Newcomen and his contemporaries in science. His invention was the product of a familiarity with technical operations and needs in the mining industry, a close knowledge of contemporary craftsmanship, repeated trials and improvements, and a stroke of luck.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

For a full biography, see L. T. C. Rolt, Thomas Newcomen: The Prehistory of the Steam Engine (London, 1963); this work modifies some of the views presented in H. W. Dickinson, A Short of the Steam Engine (London, 1938, 1963), ch. 3. An important contemporary account of Newcomenr’s work, which os based qpparently on firstand knowledge, is Mårten Triewald, Beskrifning om eld-och luftmachin vid Dannemora grufavor (Stockholm, 1734), trans. as A Short Description of the Fire-and-Air-Machine at the Dannemora Mines, and publishhed by the Newcomen Society as Mårten Triewald’ Short Description of the Atmospheric Engine, Extra Publication no. 1 (London, 1928). On the question of the influence of science on Newcomen’s work, see Rhys Jenkins, “The Heat Engine Idea in the Seventeenth Century,” in Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 17 (1936–1937), 1–11.

Harold Dorn

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Thomas Newcomen

Thomas Newcomen

The English inventor and engineer Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729) developed the first practical steam engine, an important feature of the industrial revolution.

Thomas Newcomen was born on Feb. 24, 1663, at Dartmouth, Devonshire. It seems probable that as a youth he was apprenticed to learn the blacksmith trade and later became an itinerant ironmonger, a craftsman who made tools, nails, and other hardware, which he sold throughout the mining areas about Dartmouth.

Many mines at that time had been dug so deep that they were constantly flooded, and to continue them in operation the operators had to find a better means to pump out the water. It was this omnipresent problem which led Newcomen to attempt to devise a machine which could drive a water pump. As to how Newcomen might have achieved this, 18th-and 19th-century writers usually pointed to earlier attempts to use steam as a motive force. However, no evidence has been found of any borrowing on the part of Newcomen. On the other hand, he never took out a patent of monopoly on his engine, as Thomas Savery did in 1698, because Savery's patent covered all means utilized to raise water by fire. This is probably why Newcomen found it necessary to purchase, from the proprietors of the Savery patent, the right to build a steam engine—a transaction which probably occurred about 1705. Thus it is doubtful whether Newcomen benefited financially from his invention, since it had to be exploited under another's patent. The first Newcomen engine which can be documented dates from 1712. It has been estimated that it required at least 10 to 15 years of development. Both the Newcomen and Savery engines were based upon the use of condensed steam; however, they also differed in important fundamentals.

The basic principle of Newcomen's engine was simple. Steam was injected into a cylinder, forcing a piston to move out. Cold water was then sprayed into the piston, the steam condensed, and a partial vacuum was formed. Atmospheric pressure then returned the piston to its original position, so that the process could be repeated. The piston's reciprocating motion was finally transferred to a water pump by a beam which rocked about its center. That this to-and-fro motion might somehow be transformed into the more useful rotary motion was a problem which had not as yet been recognized.

Newcomen's steam engine spread throughout the mining area of England and rescued many mines from bankruptcy. It was not until John Smeaton's and, more important, James Watt's versions of the steam engine were developed, almost three-quarters of a century later, that Newcomen's machine was superseded. Newcomen died in London on Aug. 5, 1729.

Further Reading

A biography of Newcomen is L. T. C. Rolt, Thomas Newcomen (1963). Some material on him is in H. W. Dickinson, A Short History of the Steam Engine (1939). □

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Newcomen, Thomas

Newcomen, Thomas (1663–1729). Dartmouth ironmonger and inventor of the atmospheric steam-engine. He combined Savery's independent boiler with the piston in his first ‘fire engine’ of 1712 at Dudley, applying atmospheric pressure to the top of the cylinder in which steam was condensed to create a partial vacuum and drive down the piston linked by chain to the beam that transmitted the stroke to pumps. Its use was confined to pumping water from mines or to supply networks; diffusion was limited by under-boilering and the extension of Savery's generic patent to 1733, but extended to Wales, the midlands, and the Newcastle collieries; up to 60 had been installed by 1733, the best producing a duty (pounds of water raised one foot by a bushel of coals) of 3.75 million, but a lift of under 45 yards. Smeaton's improvements allowed such engines to supply most horsepower c.1800, and Thompson's patent (1792), effective rotary motion.

J. A. Chartres

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Newcomen, Thomas

Thomas Newcomen (nyōō´kəmən, nyōōkŭm´ən), 1663–1729, English inventor of an early atmospheric steam engine (c.1711). It was an improvement over an earlier engine patented (1698) by Thomas Savery, who shared the later patent with Newcomen. This improved engine was used successfully to pump water.

See study by L. Rolt (1965).

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