Steam Power and Engines

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STEAM POWER AND ENGINES. The first useful steam engine was developed in England by Thomas Newcomen and was put into operation by 1712. By 1730 the engine was not uncommon in western Europe, and in 1755 the first steam engine began operation in the American colonies, at a copper mine in Belleville, New Jersey. This engine, built by the British firm of Joseph Hornblower, was followed by another in Philadelphia, built in 1773 by Christopher Colles. Three years later a third engine was at work, raising water for New York City waterworks. The Newcomen engines were large, expensive, and cumbersome. Except for draining valuable mines or providing water for large cities, they were not economically attractive in America, where waterpower suitable for manufactures was reasonably plentiful along the eastern seaboard.

Providing power for transportation was a greater problem. The Newcomen engine was too bulky for such purposes, but after the improvements made by James Watt beginning in 1764, it occurred to many that the steam engine might be applied to propelling boats. Beginning in 1785 more than a dozen American inventors tried to build steamboats, including Jehosaphat Starr, Apollos Kinsley, Isaac Briggs, William Longstreet, Elijah Ormsbee, John Stevens, Daniel French, Samuel Morey, James Rumsey, and Nathan Read. They were all slowed by the necessity of building their own engines (the export of which was forbidden by England) with inadequate machine-shop facilities and limited knowledge of steam technology. The most successful inventor was John Fitch, who established regular steamboat service between Philadelphia and New Jersey in 1790.

The complexity of applying steam power to navigation led some of these inventors to turn to the simpler problems of supplying stationary power. The Soho works in New Jersey, which had helped Stevens on his steamboat, began in 1799 to build two large engines for a new water-works in Philadelphia. The head of the shops, Nicholas J. Roosevelt, later partnered with Robert Fulton in operating the first commercially successful steamboat (1807). Robert Livingston, a partner of Fulton and brother-in-law of Stevens, knew Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a British physician-architect with a knowledge of steam engines, and a number of workmen who had built and operated engines in England. Prominent emigrant British engineers such as James Smallman, John Nancarrow, and Charles Stoudinger provided an important source of new technological information for American inventors and engine builders.

In 1802 Oliver Evans of Philadelphia became the first American to make steam engines for the general market. Smallman followed in 1804, and with the addition of Daniel Large and others, that city soon became the center of engine building. New York City, where Robert McQueen and James Allaire had been patronized by Fulton, became another center of engine manufacture. During the War of 1812 the building and use of engines spread to the western states. The first engine built in Pittsburgh (for a steamboat) was completed in 1811. The following year Evans opened a Pittsburgh branch of his Philadelphia Mars Iron Works. With the addition of such pioneer builders as Thomas Copeland, James Arthurs, Mahlon Rogers, and Mark Stackhouse, Pittsburgh too became a center of steam engineering. Thomas Bakewell and David Prentice opened Kentucky's first engine shop in Louisville in 1816. Work in Cincinnati, Ohio, began soon afterward, and by 1826 that city had five steam-engine factories. The widespread use of steamboats on western riverways spurred this western activity; the demand for engines on southern sugar plantations, the easy accessibility of iron and coal around Pittsburgh, and, initially, the dislocations of eastern trade caused by the War of 1812 also contributed to the vitality of western steamboat production.

By 1838 steam power was widely accepted all over the United States. The federal census of that year counted 3,010 steam engines. Of these, 350 were used on locomotives, 800 on steamboats, and 1,860 were stationary. This last category included those that ran mills of all descriptions, were at work on farms and plantations, and raised water for cities. Pennsylvania accounted for the largest number (383) of stationary engines, Louisiana was second with 274, and Massachusetts had 165. Except for Louisiana, where the engines were typically used on large sugar plantations to grind cane, most of these were located in cities. Of the 383 engines in Pennsylvania, 133 were at work in Pittsburgh and 174 in Philadelphia; of the 165 engines in Massachusetts, 114 were in or around Boston. The steam engine had a profound effect on the economy, culture, and aesthetics of cities. Formerly centers only of trade, culture, and government, they now became centers of manufacturing and, consequently, the home of a large class of factory operatives. As long as factories and mills had depended on waterpower, such a development in cities had been impossible. Unskilled and semiskilled jobs proliferated in factories powered by steam engines, thus sparking a demand for cheap labor and fueling a demographic shift towards ever larger cities that would continue throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed, the technology of the steam engine contributed mightily to the urbanization and industrialization of the American landscape.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, virtually every American city contained shops producing steam engines and had a large number of the machines at work. Imported engines were not important in the trade, although American engines were regularly exported. Northern-made engines in the South were used not only on plantations, but also in other extractive processes carried out in rice mills, cottonseed oil mills, cotton gins and presses, and the saline wells of western Virginia. Most important, these engines found increasing use in cotton textile mills scattered throughout the region. Southern cities, notably Charleston, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, became manufacturing centers in their own right, basing their activity to a considerable extent on steam.

As the first machine necessarily made of iron, the steam engine had a critical influence on the development of the iron industry. Previously, most iron had been used in a wrought form. Most engine parts were cast, however, and the improvements in casting technique forced by engine development were available for use in making other machines as well. In addition, rolling mills began to multiply only when boiler plate came into demand from engine builders. These boiler-plate makers in turn became the first to construct iron boats. The harnessing of steam engines to railroad locomotion, of course, increased the demand for rails as well as engines. In a circle of improvement, steam engines were used to drive rolling mills, provide blast for furnaces, and run drilling machines, lathes, and other iron-working machines, all of which made it easier to produce and work iron and led to improved steam engines. The demand for coal, both for iron furnaces and steam boilers, was also greatly stimulated.

There were essentially three types of steam engines used in the country before the introduction of the turbine late in the nineteenthth century. The first engines were of the Newcomen type. After the introduction of Watt's improvements in this engine, no more of the old style were built. Watt's atmospheric engine was widely popular for both stationary use and for the eastern steamboats, such as Fulton's Clermont. It was largely superseded by Evans's high-pressure engine. The piston of the Newcomen-type engine was actuated by introducing steam under it, condensing the steam with cold water, then allowing the weight of the atmosphere (about fifteen pounds per square inch) to push the piston down. Watt's key improvement was to provide a separate condenser, which would conserve heat and make the piston "double-acting" by introducing steam alternately on both sides of the piston. Evans's further improvement consisted of using the force of the steam itself (at 100–200 pounds per square inch) to drive the piston directly, allowing it to escape into the atmosphere uncondensed. The power of the Watt engine could usually be increased only by enlarging the cylinder. With Evans's Columbian engine, only the steam pressure need be increased. Because it provided more power in a smaller space, his engine quickly became standard on western steamboats and eventually on locomotives.

Subsequent efforts at improvement went in two directions: first, toward further refinements of the reciprocating engine, especially by such improved valve actions as that of George Corliss of Rhode Island, and second, toward a rotary engine. Hundreds of patents were taken out for such devices before the successes of such late nineteenth-century inventors as Charles Gordon Curtis in developing the steam turbine. In the twentieth century, steam power has remained of primary importance only in the generation of electricity in power plants, although its potential use in automobiles periodically receives attention.


Hamlin, Talbot. Benjamin Henry Latrobe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.

Hills, Richard L. Power from Steam: A History of the Stationary Steam Engine. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Philip, Cynthia Owen. Robert Fulton, A Biography. New York: F. Watts, 1985.

Pursell, Carroll W. Early Stationary Steam Engines in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969.

Rolt, Lionel. The Steam Engine of Thomas Newcomen. New York: Science History Publications, 1977.

CarrollPursell/a. r.

See alsoAgricultural Machinery ; Fulton's Folly ; Industrial Revolution ; Locomotives ; Manufacturing ; Railroads ; Transportation and Travel ; Water Supply and Conservation .