The Revolution Begins: Steam Engines, Railroads, and Steamboats

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The Revolution Begins: Steam Engines, Railroads, and Steamboats

The Industrial Revolution started in the 1700s with the development of machines that substituted for human or animal muscle power. The newly invented machines, powered by burning wood or coal, or by the flowing water of a stream or river, could accomplish the same amount of work that previously required several people or several animals flexing their muscles. Not only could the machines do the work of several living beings, machines could do it at a much faster speed. Imagine substituting a horse for the motor of a car; one or two horses could easily pull the weight of a car with its passengers, but no horse could run down the highway at sixty miles an hour, hour after hour, as a car can.

There were two separate, but related, aspects to the development of new machines in the Industrial Revolution. One was the use of sources of energy besides muscles. In particular, inventors found ways to capture and utilize the natural characteristic of water to expand when it is heated and becomes steam. The other aspect was the invention of machinery that could emulate work done for centuries by skilled workers, especially in the manufacture of fabric. Eventually these two aspects came together, in the form of steam-driven machines to spin thread or weave cloth. The new energy sources also enabled the development of reliable, high-speed transportation, in the form of trains and steam ships.

In less than a century, these technological developments had an enormous impact on the nature of work, the way society was organized, and the ways in which wealth was generated and shared.

About Energy

The science of physics is, in part, the study of energy. It is a complex subject that people study over a lifetime, but some of the basic principles lie at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.

Physicists define energy as the ability to do work, by which they mean the capability to move an object. Energy has three fundamental characteristics that are useful to know in understanding the Industrial Revolution: (1) it can take different forms, including light, heat, and motion itself; (2) it can be stored for long periods of time in different forms, of which coal and wood are two examples; and (3) the total amount of energy in the universe is constant.

The phrase "use energy" really refers to moving or converting energy from one form to another form, from one place to another, or both—from a storage container (such as a lump of coal) into heat felt across the room, for example, or into light seen miles away, for example. Energy can also be transferred from storage into motion (in this form, energy is called "momentum), which is the essence of industrial machinery. In all these processes, energy never disappears entirely. Physicists sometimes refer to this as "the rule of conservation of energy."

The natural source of energy on Earth is the Sun. Its energy is transferred to the Earth in the form of light. In this sense, energy equals light and vice versa.

Plants absorb this light (energy) through their leaves, and in a biological process called photosynthesis they convert minerals in the earth into living cells. In effect, the cells of plants are little storage containers for the energy that arrived from the Sun.

When humans or animals eat plants, the stored energy is again transferred and stored in animal cells. When a human or animal flexes its muscles to pull acart along the road or raise a hand in class, for example, the energy is converted yet again—into the motion of the cart or hand.

Over millions of years, dead plants decayed and were crushed by the weight of the earth. In effect, they became collections of carbon atoms, sometimes combined with other elements. The resulting substance is coal, which looks like black rocks but could be thought of as being ancient trees in ultra-compact form. The energy absorbed from the Sun by trees and plants millions of years ago is still stored in the form of molecules of coal, which is in effect a type of storage container for the same energy that started out as sunlight and got stored in plant cells countless millions of years ago.

Burning coal is a way of transferring this stored (one could say "saved") energy yet again, by converting it into still another form: heat. In a coal-burning steam engine, the energy stored in coal is transferred, in the form of heat, to water. When enough energy (or heat) has been absorbed, the water suddenly turns into steam (a process that could be described as water molecules moving apart from one another).

The steam engine then transfers the energy of expanding water molecules in order to move some other object. This last step results in the work of the steam engine, whether it be moving a vehicle or pumping water.

In the process of transferring ancient stored energy (and remembering that energy can take the form of light, heat, or motion) from its ancient container (coal), some energy escapes as heat into the atmosphere, where there is no natural way of reconverting the heat to another form of energy. This process is, at base, the cause of concern about global warming: mankind has released so much ancient energy that the Earth is reaching the limits of its capacity to absorb it.

Steam power

In order to understand the development of steam-powered machines, it is useful to examine the nature of water. Water comprises molecules (a molecule is the smallest particle in a chemical compound, and is composed of two or more atoms joined together) made of two types of atoms: hydrogen and oxygen. Each molecule of pure water contains two atoms of hydrogen and one of water; scientists write this as H2O.

When these molecules are between 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) and 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius), they are in a liquid state called water, the most common substance on Earth. When the molecules are heated to above 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius), they fly apart from one another and become a gas called steam. At that instant, the volume (space) occupied by molecules of H2O instantly expands many times over (1,325 times over, to be precise). The same number of molecules that, in liquid form, would fit in a one-gallon plastic bottle measuring about five and a half inches square on the bottom and a little more than eight inches high suddenly need a container that would measure five and a half inches square by more than eleven thousand inches high. Normally, of course, the molecules simply escape into the atmosphere, as can be seen when a teakettle is boiling on a stove.

Some Components of Steam Engines

In discussing steam engines, there are a few terms common to all such engines that are useful to know in understanding how they work:

  • Boiler: A container of water that is to be heated to create steam. Boilers usually are shaped like giant metal bottles (although the first ones looked more like round pots) with pipes to let in new water and other pipes to let out the steam. These pipes are opened or shut by one-way doors called valves.
  • Cylinder: A round pipe, closed at one end and, usually, with a small hole at the other end. Cylinders can be of almost any diameter and height, although the practicality of using them usually limits both dimensions.
  • Piston: A round, solid piece of metal designed to move up and down (or back and forth) inside the cylinder. The piston fits so snugly inside the cylinder that neither steam nor water can squeeze between the sides of the piston and the walls of the cylinder. However, a very thin coating of oil usually lines the surface of the piston to avoid friction between the two pieces of metal. Friction could cause the metal to expand slightly, preventing the piston from moving inside the cylinder.
  • Rod: A piece of metal, usually round, attached to the top of the piston. The rod extends outside of the cylinder and transfers the movement of the piston to some other object (a wheel, for example, or a pump handle).
  • Valve: A sort of one-way door that lets liquid or gas pass through in one direction only. The design of valves makes them shut a passage (such as a pipe) automatically if a liquid or gas tries to reverse direction.

In a theoretical steam engine, a coal fire underneath the boiler heats the water, creating steam. The steam escapes through a valve into the cylinder, just underneath the piston, which is initially sitting near one end of the cylinder. As the steam continues to enter the cylinder, it pushes on the piston, forcing it toward the other end of the cylinder, and thereby pushing the rod attached to the top of the piston. Steam is quite powerful: the rod may be attached to a very heavy weight, which the force of expanding steam can also move.

When the steam underneath the piston is suddenly cooled, perhaps with a squirt of water, and no more steam is allowed to enter, the piston is pulled down by the force of the vacuum, or empty space, created by the condensation of the steam back into water.

Then the process begins again: steam is let into the cylinder and pushes the piston back up to the top. An arrangement of levers and gears attached to the bouncing rod allows the steam engine to do useful work, such as pumping out a flooded mineshaft or moving a train locomotive.

Not only do molecules of steam occupy more space than they did when they were in liquid form, they expand very rapidly and with tremendous force. If a sealed metal container of water is heated, the container will explode if the resulting steam is not given someplace to escape to—one reason why experiments using heat and steam can be very dangerous.

When steam is cooled, it has the opposite reaction: it contracts back into water, occupying much less space. If steam housed in a large container is quickly cooled so that it converts to water, the contraction creates a vacuum, or empty space, inside the container. Other molecules rush to fill this vacuum, even from outside the container. If a vacuum were created inside an aluminum can of soda, for example, the molecules of the surrounding atmosphere would crush the can in an effort to fill the empty space. Alternatively, a vacuum can be controlled to create a strong suction that can bring a substance, such as water, into the container. A strong cylinder with a pipe leading to the outside can raise water from a well, for example.

These two basic principles lie at the heart of the steam engine. Beginning in Europe in the early 1600s (at about the time the Pilgrims were establishing new settlements in North America), a series of inventors began designing devices to control these reactions. The result was the steam engine, which started out as a kind of pump and evolved into a powerful engine for transportation and manufacturing. Indeed, the steam engine could be said to have powered the Industrial Revolution.

Early experiments with steam

The characteristics of water and steam have been known since ancient times. More than two thousand years ago, around 50 b.c.e., the ancient Greek mathematician and engineer Hero (sometimes called Heron) lived in Alexandria (now in Egypt). His surviving writings describe a device he called the "aeolipile," (pronounced a-LIP-ah-lee), or "windball." It was a sphere in which water was heated to create steam. Steam escaped from two L-shaped pipes sticking out of either side; the rush of escaping steam sent the sphere spinning.

During the Renaissance, the period of great scientific, literary, and artistic achievement in Europe between about 1400 and 1700, scientists and engineers began thinking about how to take advantage of the characteristics of heat and water.

In 1615 the engineer and architect Salomon de Caus (1576–1626), who worked for both King Louis XIII of France and the Prince of Wales in England, published a work in which he described a machine designed to lift water by using the power of expanding steam. A drawing of the device shows a hollow copper sphere with a horizontal pipe sticking out from the top and extending to almost the bottom. Another small pipe, with a valve like a faucet (like those found in bathrooms) leads into the sphere from the side. As the water in the sphere is heated, the hottest molecules rise to the top and turn into steam, which expands. The expanding gas pushes down on the surface of the water inside the sphere, forcing water up through the vertical pipe. After the water is pushed out, the source of steam is shut off and more water is let into the sphere from a second pipe by opening the faucet, and the process can begin again.

In 1631 David Ramsay (sometimes written as Ramsaye) of Scotland received a government patent (the exclusive right, for a period of time, to use an invention) for a device that could "raise water from low paths by fire." Although details of Ramsay's invention are obscure, he evidently referred to a pump that was driven by water heated and converted into steam. Several European inventors of the early 1600s also wrote about devices that used steam for the purpose of raising water, including from the bottom of mines.

In the very earliest "steam engines," the steam and the water that was meant to be pushed higher occupied the same container. Some of the water was turned into steam and pushed the rest of the liquid down. The water had no place to go but upwards through a vertical pipe that entered the container from the top and extended almost to the bottom. As the steam pushed down on the surface of the water, the water rose through this vertical pipe, where it sometimes spurted out as if from a fountain. Indeed, some of the earliest examples of the technology could be seen in decorative fountains, rather than in engines that perform work.

The next advance lay in using the power of suction to bring water from the bottom of a pipe (in a well, or the bottom of a mine, for example) into the chamber. A container was filled with steam, which was rapidly cooled (at first by pouring cold water on the outside of the container, and later by squirting cool water into the steam-filled chamber). As the steam condensed back into water, occupying much less volume, a vacuum was created. This vacuum was used to suck water up a pipe and into the chamber. In the case of a steam-driven pump, for example, this water could then be transferred from the chamber into some other container, and the process could be repeated.

Edward Somerset, second Marquis of Worcester

A key inventor in the history of the steam engine was Edward Somerset, the second Marquis of Worcester (pronounced WOO-ster). He published a work in 1663 describing devices he claimed to have developed, including a sort of double-chambered steam engine.

Based on his description (Somerset did not supply a drawing), it appears that water was boiled (converted into steam) in one chamber, and that the steam was then allowed to escape into a second chamber, creating a vacuum. The vacuum sucked water through another pipe that led from a source of water, such as a well. While this was taking place, an identical chamber next to the first was filling with steam so that it, too, could be chilled and create a vacuum. As the steam poured into the chamber, it pushed down on the surface of the water, forcing it up an exit pipe, as described above. The source of steam for both chambers was a "boiler," a container of water off to the side of the chambers and sitting over a fire or furnace.

Somerset's machine thus used characteristics of water and steam to provide power. The expansion of steam pushed the water in a chamber up a pipe to a higher level, and the contraction of the steam (when the container was cooled) created a vacuum, which sucked water up from a lower level (which could have been a mineshaft or a well or just a stream). Although no examples of Somerset's machines are known to exist, one was installed in Raglan Castle, in southeastern Wales (part of Britain), and the outlines have survived.

Charles II and the Pace of English Invention

The English king Charles II (1630–1685) played an indirect role in launching the Industrial Revolution.

Sometimes called the "Merry Monarch" for his easy-going nature, Charles had to fight for his crown during the English civil war (1648–1660), which was fought over the question of whether England would be a Catholic nation or a Protestant one.

Entirely apart from the religious and political issues that swirled around Charles II after he was restored to the throne of England, the monarch seemed to enjoy exploring science and mechanics, which were both flowering at the time. The king set up a laboratory and employed people to carry on experiments in the areas of mechanics and chemistry, as well as matters involving navigation at sea.

Some writers believe that the king's interest in such matters helps explain why England leaped ahead of other European countries in the areas of science and technology in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

Somerset's design had one disadvantage: it wasted a lot of fuel, either wood or coal, used to make steam. The reason was that when steam was admitted to a container nearly full of water, some of the heat was absorbed by the water, turning the steam back into water. Steam could still be forced into the chamber fast enough to push down on the surface of the water, and thereby force it up through the central exit pipe. But the absorption of heat by water intended to be pushed out was wasteful of the wood or coal used to create steam in the first place.

This underlying problem was solved with introduction of the piston (see box on page 36). The piston, a solid, round piece of metal that slid up and down inside the round chamber, meant that steam coming in at the top of the water-filled chamber could push down on the piston, instead of on the surface of the water. The piston was forced down, and it pushed on the surface of the water. But the piston also introduced a new design possibility: a rod (a solid, round piece of metal) could be attached to the piston, and as the piston went down, the rod would move down. When the steam pushing down on the piston was cooled, the piston would go back to the top, drawn by the vacuum created by the cooled steam.

By using a series of levers and gears, the up-and-down motion of the rod attached to the piston could be used to move other parts of a machine.

Coal mines and development of the steam engine in England

In the 1600s, England faced a particular problem: its once vast forests of oak trees had been chopped down over many centuries to be used as logs to heat homes, as well as used for timbers in making sailing ships. Fortunately for England, it had an alternative for home heating: extensive deposits of coal buried underground, particularly in the northwestern part of the country. Getting coal out of the ground required digging vertical shafts (holes) and networks of horizontal tunnels, and coal mining led to another problem: flooding.

Water seeping through the earth from the surface penetrated the tunnels and gathered at the bottom of the mineshafts, threatening to flood the horizontal tunnels that followed the coal "seam." To avoid drowning miners, horses were used to haul buckets to the top. But as mines were dug deeper and the network of tunnels expanded, flooding started to outstrip the ability of a horse-driven bucket brigade to keep the mines relatively dry. (At one mine, even 500 horses could barely keep pace with the water seeping into the bottom of the mine.)

A different, more efficient means of removing the water was needed, and a pump like Somerset's that used coal to create the steam seemed like an ideal answer.

Thomas Savery (c. 1650–1715) was a British military engineer who is usually credited with the next breakthrough in steam engine development. Savery applied for many patents for inventions between 1694 and 1710, including an application dated 1698 titled "a new Invention for Raising Water and Occasioning Motion to all Sorts of Mill Work by the Impellant Force of Fire, which will be of great use and Advantage for DRAINING Mines, Serveing Towns with Water, and for the working of all Sorts of Mills where they have not the Benefit of Water nor Constant Windes."

Savery's application was interesting not only for the device, but also for the fact that he included what he hoped would turn out to be reasons for its financial success: people could build machines away from energy sources such as rivers, streams, or windmills; they could drain mines, especially coal mines; and they could supply power to mills and factories. Doing this, however, raised a new requirement: transporting fuel to the new engine, a consideration that played an important role later in the Industrial Revolution.

Savery's device used the same principles that made Somerset's steam pump work. Water was heated in a large container (the boiler) built over a furnace. Steam from the container was directed into two cylinders. Leading out of the chambers were pipes that extended nearly to the bottom, and through which water could be ejected, just as in Somerset's device. At the same time, another set of pipes led from the chambers downward, into a mine, where suction power was designed to suck up the water. After steam from the boiler fills one of the cylinders, the supply of steam is shut off and the chamber is quickly cooled, causing the steam inside to contract and create a vacuum. The vacuum sucks water from the bottom of the well, filling the chamber. This intake pipe is then closed, by a valve, and steam is again let into the chamber, forcing the water up through the exit pipe. The process alternates between the two containers; while one is in suction mode, the other is filling with steam. Then they reverse roles.

The machine had some drawbacks, however. It required a skilled operator to open and close the various valves that let in steam and water. It was limited in the depth from which it could pump water. These limitations led to the success of the next major figure in steam engine history, Thomas Newcomen.

Thomas Newcomen's engine

The first business success in the development of the steam engine came to Thomas Newcomen (1663–1729) of England. Historians have wondered whether Newcomen borrowed his basic ideas from Savery or whether Newcomen's steam engine was entirely his own invention. Either way, it was Newcomen who made a successful business of manufacturing steam engines, and in the first half of the 1700s, the Newcomen engine started dotting the English countryside, pumping water out of mines.

In Newcomen's design, a piston moved up and down in a cylinder, as described earlier. The piston was attached to a strong bar acting like a lever. As the piston rose and fell, the bar also rose and fell, just like with the operation of a hand pump, except in this case the steam engine was providing the up-and-down movement. Steam flooding into the chamber pushed the piston up; cold water was squirted into the chamber, causing the steam to condense back into water and creating a vacuum that drew the piston down. The downward motion created a vacuum on the top, and this sucked the water up from below and into the chamber above the piston. Another squirt of steam from the boiler pushed the piston up, expelling the water through a separate pipe. This cycle repeated endlessly: the expansion power of steam pushing the piston up, the contraction of cooled steam creating a vacuum and pulling the piston down, creating another vacuum that sucked in the water from the bottom of a coal mine. The cycle could repeat as long as coal heated water and created steam.

Newcomen built his first engine in 1712. It worked at the rate of twelve strokes (vertical movements) per minute. Each stroke could remove about ten gallons of water from the bottom of a mine. Eventually, machines built on Newcomen's design grew very large, in order to increase the amount of water removed. One such machine, built in Russia in 1775, had a piston 66 inches (168 centimeters) across and moved vertically 102 inches (259 centimeters).

It was expensive to build and install one of Newcomen's pumping devices. This fact led to one of the social changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. It required either a rich individual to put up funds, or the pooling of funds by individuals who had extra savings, to build a machine. This money was called "capital," and the people investing their savings to build steam engines were the first capitalists. Their role was to provide the capital (money), not the work.

The cost of building a steam-driven pump proved to be worthwhile. Over time, it was much less expensive to operate a Newcomen machine than it was to pay for workers and horses to haul water from the bottom of a mine, even if the horses had been able to keep pace with the water collecting at the bottom.

Other Contributors to the Steam Engine

Many inventors contributed to the development of the steam engine. Among these are:

  • The Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), who, working in France, left drawings of devices that closely resemble the first steam engines. His drawings showed how exploding gunpowder, instead of steam, could move a piston inside a cylinder.
  • Jean de Hautefeuille (1647–1724) of France, who described the idea of pistons to push water, or air, out of a cylinder.
  • Denis Papin (1647–1712) of France, who built on Huygens's idea of gunpowder and suggested using steam instead.
  • Samuel Morland (1625–1695), a British clergyman, scientist, and master mechanic to King Charles II, who conducted early experiments on how pressure is created when steam is contained in a limited space. It was a key discovery along the road to development of the steam engine.

The idea that a machine could cost less to operate while doing the same amount of work (in this case, bringing water to the surface) introduced another element that would mark the Industrial Revolution: productivity. In the case of a Newcomen engine, two men running a steam engine could accomplish the same work (measured in the amount of water pumped) in forty-eight hours as previously was accomplished by twenty men and fifty horses working day and night for a week.

Newcomen's engine also led to changes in the manufacture of iron, a strong metal. Iron was preferable to brass, a weaker metal that previously had been used to make pumps. A mutual dependency developed among coal, iron, and steam-engine manufacturers. As the steam-driven Newcomen engines required coal for energy, mining that coal required larger Newcomen engines to keep the mines from being flooded. Making larger Newcomen engines required manufacturing iron, a process that required coal.

For England, it was a lucky coincidence that iron mines and coal deposits were located near one another. It was one reason that England took an early lead in the Industrial Revolution.

James Watt repairs a model

After Newcomen introduced his first steam engine, there was one big step forward in this technology before the Industrial Revolution really got rolling. That advance was introduced by James Watt (1736–1819) of Scotland.

Watt worked for the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, making scientific instruments. He associated with a group of young scientists, including Dr. John Robison. In 1759 Robison raised the idea that a Newcomen steam engine could be used to move carriage wheels, as well as pump water. Watt later recalled that he had read Robison's paper and was intrigued by the idea.

During the school year 1763–64 Watt was asked to repair a working model of a Newcomen engine that was owned by the university. The model engine, quite miniature (its piston was just two inches in diameter), did not work properly. The engine started, ran for a few strokes, and then stopped.

Watt soon concluded that the Newcomen engine had two fundamental problems. One, it wasted much of the steam it generated because some of it escaped into the atmosphere before it could get into the cylinder to drive the piston.

A related problem lay in the way the steam was condensed back into water. In Newcomen's steam engine, water was sprayed inside the cylinder to cause the steam to condense and create the vacuum that pulled the piston back down. This process also cooled the cylinder, which could potentially condense the next batch of steam before the piston had been pushed all the way up.

Watt observed another inefficiency. When cold water was sprayed inside the cylinder, it condensed most—but not all—of the steam. This meant that the remaining bit of steam was resisting the vacuum in pulling the piston back down.

Watt realized that there was a basic problem with the design of Newcomen's engine. On the one hand, it was important to cool the cylinder sufficiently to condense all the steam; on the other hand, if the cylinder were cooled too much, it would take time and energy to heat it back up when the steam was introduced for the next cycle.

Thinking about the model steam engine on a walk through a park in Glasgow one Sunday afternoon, Watt had an inspiration. The next day, he started work on a model incorporating his idea: to use a separate container to condense the steam instead of condensing it in the cylinder where the piston was moving. His notion was to pump the air out of this second container—called a condenser—so that the steam would rush into the vacuum of the condenser, where it could be cooled and condensed without chilling the cylinder where the piston was moving. Watt also wrapped insulation around the cylinder so that it would stay as hot as possible. In this way, the next time steam was inserted, no heat would be lost when it came into contact with the walls of the cylinder.

Watt added two other innovations to Newcomen's engine. First, where Newcomen had used ordinary air to push the piston against the vacuum created by condensing the steam, Watt had the idea of using steam to push the piston in both directions. When he let the steam out of one end of the cylinder, he let steam into the other end so that steam pushed the piston in both directions, up and down. In this sense, Watt's engine was the first true "steam engine" since it used steam throughout, instead of a combination of steam and air, as in Newcomen's design.

Watt's other improvement involved the way in which steam was admitted to the cylinder. Originally, steam was injected until the piston moved all the way to the top of the cylinder. Later, Watt tried injecting steam only until the piston was one-fourth of the way through its stroke. The natural tendency of steam to expand provided the rest of the "push" against the piston. The result was an engine that needed less coal to generate steam, yet delivered the same energy in moving the piston.


Coal has been used for heating for hundreds of years. Archaeologists have found evidence that the ancient Romans used it; in China, its use dates back over two thousand years.

In England, the use of coal started increasing by the early 1700s, partly to replace depleted forests of oak trees as a source of heat for homes.

Engine or Machine?

Machine and engine are two words that are often used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference. An engine converts a source of energy, such as coal or oil, into movement. A machine uses the power generated by the engine to manipulate or make something. Machines can weave thread into sheets of cloth or stamp metal into different shapes, for example.

Machines can use different sources of energy, including human or animal muscles, running water, or steam, to provide the movement required for making objects. Engines are sources of power that do not depend on muscles or running water from rivers or streams.

Coal has qualities that make it an ideal fuel. Compared to wood, coal burns at a higher temperature and produces more heat from the same volume of material. And while burning wood depletes forests, the supply of coal buried in the earth is so large that shortages have not yet been encountered after more than two hundred years of extensive use.

The Lunar Society

James Watt and Matthew Boulton were members of a distinguished group of scientist-inventors called the Lunar Society, which met in Birmingham, England. The American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin was also associated with the society while he lived in England in the 1760s and early 1770s.

The society consisted of a small group of men who met each month on the Monday closest to the full moon. After an evening of dining and discussion, they made their way home by the light of the moon; hence the group's name.

Besides Watt and Boulton, other members included William Small, a doctor who once taught at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and one of whose students was future American president Thomas Jefferson; Erasmus Darwin, a physician, inventor, and poet; Joseph Priestly, a chemist and Unitarian preacher; and Josiah Wedgwood, founder of a pottery company that still exists, as well as an amateur scientist interested in chemistry, minerals, clays, and glazes.

Members of the Lunar Society collected fossils and minerals, and they once set about trying to classify (organizing by species) all of the plants in Britain. They also conducted frequent experiments in laboratories, seeking to learn about nature through empiricism, or the practice of learning by closely observing the properties of objects rather than forming theories about them in advance. Other topics of interest included electricity and the nature of "airs" such as oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide.

The so-called Lunars for the most part supported the American Revolution and formation of a republic in North America to replace the monarch. Later, in 1789, many of them also supported the French Revolution, in which that country's king was removed from power.

The Lunar Society represented the unique combination of science, business, and independent thought in religion and politics that became hallmarks of the early Industrial Revolution in England.

On the other hand, coal has long been controversial. During the reign of King Edward I (1272–1307), burning coal was banned in England because some coal contains significant amounts of sulfur, which gives off an unpleasant odor as it burns. The sulfur in coal also combines with rain to create "acid raid," which can corrode buildings. Coal also produces great amounts of soot, a black, powdery substance comprised of pure carbon. In areas where large amounts of coal are burned, soot can cover everything in sight and darken whole cities and towns.

Despite its drawbacks, coal as an energy source played a key role in the Industrial Revolution and influenced it in indirect ways as well.

As factories were being established, investors saw an advantage to locating the new coal-burning steam engines close to the source of coal. Railroads were not well established until the early 1800s, so placing coal-burning machines near the coal made economic sense. In Britain, deposits of iron ore were often situated near deposits of coal, making it inevitable that Britain's factory belt would be built in the northern part of England, near the sources of coal and iron.

Types of Coal

Coal is a combustible material found in nature that is primarily made up of the element carbon. There are four main types of coal, each with different characteristics.

  • Lignite is a soft, brownish-colored coal. It is textured somewhat like wood and has a higher moisture content than other forms of coal; it therefore produces less heat per ton than other coal.
  • Subbituminous coal is black with little texture. It contains less water than lignite and produces more heat per ton, but it deteriorates if exposed to the weather and tends to crumble when transported.
  • Bituminous coal is black and shiny. It has little moisture and produces more heat from a given volume than any other form. In the United States, bituminous coal is found throughout the Northeast and Midwest.
  • Anthracite is very high in carbon and therefore burns efficiently and with little soot. It is harder to start burning, but it burns longer than other coals, giving a steady, clean flame. When coal was used to heat houses, anthracite was often the preferred form.

Life in the mines

There were—and still are—many dangers associated with coal mining. Coal is usually found in horizontal strips, called seams, that run deep beneath the surface of the Earth. Deep shafts are dug, then horizontal tunnels are hollowed out and coal is dug from the seam. These horizontal tunnels were often so low that adults had difficulty crossing them, but children did not. For this reason, little children often were sent into coal mines to help chip away the coal or push carts (which ran on rails, like little trains) filled with coal back to the vertical shafts, where they were pulled to the surface. (The sight of young boys, their faces smudged with coal dust, trudging from mines after twelve hours of work, was a powerful image for politicians who insisted on legislation to reform the industry.)

Another danger was that explosives were used to blast the coal free from the seam, and sometimes these explosions caused sections of the tunnel to come crashing down, either crushing miners or blocking their access to the surface. Also, depending on the type of coal being mined, highly flammable gases sometimes seep from coal seams. Coal miners learned that canaries would be overcome by these gases before humans would be, so birds in cages were often carried into mines as early warning signals for the presence of gas, which could either suffocate miners or explode with deadly force.

Steam locomotives

Transportation is a critical part of manufacturing. Raw materials, including coal for steam engines, need to be brought to a factory, and finished goods need to be distributed to customers. The Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed the nature of transportation and travel, much as it changed the nature of manufacturing. Steam engines, themselves major users of coal, played a critical role in the evolution of transportation.

Railroads were critical in advancing the Industrial Revolution. Without them, it would not have been economical to transport coal to factories where steam-powered machines burned coal for fuel. Railroads also made it faster and cheaper to transport raw materials and manufactured goods to distant markets.

Moving coal from the mine

Like the steam engine, railroads owe their invention to the coal mine. The first prototype railroads were carts on wooden wheels that ran along wooden tracks inside the coal mine. The carts on rails helped miners haul large amounts of heavy coal to the surface. No particular individual or exact time and place is credited with this invention, but illustrations of German coal mines as early as 1530 show little trolley cars loaded with coal and hauled by horses. In the early models, the cars, wheels, and rails all were made of wood.

Rails greatly reduced friction, compared to wheels on the earth. Using rails, a single horse could haul a wagon holding about 4,500 pounds (2,043 kilograms) of coal; the same horse pulling a wagon over a road could haul only about 1,600 pounds (726 kilograms) of coal. The horse hauled the wagons uphill; going downhill, the horse was detached and gravity took over. A man sitting on the car tried to maintain control by applying a brake to one pair of wheels by sitting on a lever. Accidents were common.

By 1602 this system of hauling coal from the mines was installed in mines around Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. Over the next 150 years, an extensive network of wood-based "rail roads" was working in this area. In 1765—while Watt was working on the improved steam engine—a typical coal mine railway was composed of rails made from discarded masts taken from sailing ships. The rails were about 5 inches (13 centimeters) wide and 7 inches (8 centimeters) high; they were anywhere from 3 to 5 feet (90 to 150 centimeters) apart.

Industrial Travel

In 1755 young James Watt set off from Glasgow, Scotland, to London, England, to become a maker of scientific instruments. He traveled by horse, and the trip took twelve days. About a century later, a passenger riding a railroad powered by a steam engine could make the trip in about twelve hours.

Gradually, these primitive wooden rails were extended from the mouth of the coal mine to a canal, where the coal was transported via barges. During the late 1700s extensive canals were built in England; floating barges could hold enormous weights and could be pulled by horses on a tow-path alongside the canal. But these little artificial rivers were difficult and expensive to build. They posed special difficulties in transporting goods over hills and mountains. Eventually, railroad builders ignored the canals and built the railroads all the way to the eventual destination.

In 1758 the British Parliament passed a bill establishing the Middleton Railway, which claims the distinction of being the oldest railway in the world. The Middleton Railway gave rise to another first: the first commercially successful use of steam locomotives. But these did not begin operating on the Middleton until 1812, fifty-four years after it was founded.

Early History of Coal in the United States

Deposits of coal were discovered in North America as early as 1673, in what is now Illinois, by a French expedition led by Louis Jolliet (sometimes spelled Joliet; 1645–1700) and Père Marquette (1637–1675). The earliest coal mining took place in Virginia in the early 1700s. Between 1750 and 1800 many coal deposits were discovered in the areas of the Appalachian Mountains in what is now West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland. There was limited mining of coal in the late 1700s; the coal industry got its big boost from the introduction of the steam locomotive and railroads after 1830.

Railroads provided both a need for coal—to run steam locomotives—and the means to haul it from the mines to the sites of early factories and cities where it could be used for heating homes. The next push for increased coal production in the United States came in the second half of the 1800s, when the steel industry substituted coke, a byproduct of coal, for charcoal in the manufacture of iron and steel. The presence of extensive coal deposits in Pennsylvania and West Virginia led directly to the building of the steel industry around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Still later, with the advent of electric power, coal was used extensively in generating electricity, a role that it continues to play in the twenty-first century.

From wood to iron

Wood was not an ideal material for building railways. Both the wooden wheels and wooden rails wore out rapidly. After 1760 the wheels were often made of iron, but these wore out the wooden rails even faster. For a while, railways that served coal mines were fitted with strips of iron on top of the wooden rails, but these strips soon came loose.

The first iron rails were introduced in 1765 in Coal-brookdale, England, by an iron manufacturer named Richard Reynolds. The all-iron rails were an instant success for two reasons: they did not wear out, and because of reduced friction on the wheels of the coal carts, a horse could haul more than twice as much coal.

As more railroads were built, engineers devised other improvements. In 1797 English engineer Benjamin Outram (1764–1805), for example, devised a new shape for the rails, which included a flange, or rim. The flange gave the flat rail an L shape; the vertical piece helped keep the wheels from sliding off the rails. In 1801 Benjamin Wyatt of Bangor, England, thought of putting the flanges on the wheels instead of the rails. He designed a wheel with a groove that fit over a flat iron rail.

Until this time, the carts loaded with coal were being hauled by horses. The innovation that completed the picture of a modern railroad came from Richard Trevithick (1771–1833) on Christmas Eve, 1801, when he first demonstrated his concept of a locomotive (an engine that moves under its own power), which was essentially a steam engine mounted on wheels.

Trevithick increased the engine's steam pressure so that the steam, rushing into the cylinder, pushed the piston to the other end of the cylinder with greater force. And by injecting steam into both ends of the cylinder, Trevithick eliminated the need to condense the steam; it could simply be vented into the air. This technique applied the power of steam (as opposed to the power of suction) to both ends of the cylinder and made the engine both faster and more powerful. In the engine that Trevithick mounted on wheels (his locomotive), the steam was released from the same chimney that released smoke from the fire heating the boiler. Every time this happened, the flow of air feeding the fire increased, causing the fire to burn hotter and therefore to turn water to steam faster.

Trevithick built his first locomotive at Coalbrookdale in 1802. An iron manufacturer in South Wales, Samuel Hom-fray, saw it and asked Trevithick to build one to use on a railway nine miles long that hauled coal to his ironworks at Dowlais. Trevithick's locomotive made the first trip, hauling a loaded train, on February 13, 1804, on the Penydarren railway in South Wales. The maiden trip had mixed results. The train hauled the coal, but the weight of the locomotive (7 tons; 6.3 metric tons) caused many of the rails to break. After just two more trips Homfray took the engine off its wheels. Instead, he used cables to pull the loaded cars along the tracks. For a while, this arrangement struck many people as being a safer way of using a steam engine to haul cars along tracks.

Trevithick was widely admired as an engineer, but he never achieved financial success. In 1808 he built a little circular railway in London, called Catch-Me-Who-Can, and offered rides for one shilling. It was a sort of amusement park ride, and he thought people would be thrilled to travel the astounding (at the time) speed of fifteen miles an hour. It turned out to be too much of a thrill—the public stayed away out of fear that the ride was dangerous. Eventually Trevithick took a job working in a silver mine in Peru, and after further business setbacks, he died penniless in London in 1833. Although Trevithick never profited from his designs, he is recognized as a key inventor in the history of railroads.

Three years after Trevithick showed Catch-Me-WhoCan in London, the English inventor John Blenkinsop (1783–1831) built two engines based on Trevithick's locomotive—but Blenkinsop's were lighter, in order not to break the rails. They were a big success. Trains hauled by locomotives of Blenkinsop's design began operating, at 5.5 miles an hour, in August 1812. The next year, another English inventor, William Hedley (1779–1843), built a locomotive mounted on eight wheels instead of four. This design spread out the load, allowing the iron rails to support the weight without breaking. Hedley's design was named "Puffing Billy," and several such locomotives were put into operation over the next fifteen years. They were still in use as late as 1862.

For the next decade, further refinements were made in the design of locomotives. One English engineer in particular, George Stephenson (1781–1848), became interested in the subject of locomotives and built one for the Killingworth Railway in 1814. In 1821 Stephenson was appointed chief engineer of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, even before construction had begun. He hired his son Robert, then age eighteen, as an assistant.

George Stephenson made an important change in Stockton and Darlington Railway's original plans: he insisted that iron rails be used, rather than iron strips on top of wood, which tended to loosen. Stephenson also persuaded the company to use locomotives, rather than horses or stationary steam engines.

On September 27, 1825, the Stockton and Darlington Railway introduced a locomotive—named Locomotion and designed by George Stephenson—to haul coal for the twenty miles between Brusselton and Etherley. It was a momentous occasion: the first time a steam locomotive had hauled cars on a public railway anywhere in the world.

George Stephenson and his son Robert continued to lead the effort to use locomotives to haul freight and passengers. And as the technology improved, it led to more widespread uses that eventually had a major impact on society, in England, the United States, and eventually around the world. Steam locomotives significantly increased the speed of travel. And by cutting the time it took to cross a country, they made it feasible for manufacturers to sell goods to a much wider market. Faster travel also changed perceptions of time and space. To a young man in Glasgow, London went from being a city that was twelve days' ride away when James Watt was a young man to a city that could be reached in twelve hours toward the end of Watt's life. Riding in a railroad carriage gradually became more like sitting in a comfortable living room on wheels, a far cry from sitting on a horse's back for hours on end or in a horse-drawn carriage bouncing down rough roads.


The nineteenth century marked the end of a long era of wind-powered ocean travel when the sail was replaced by the steam engine. The notion of using a steam engine to propel a boat or ship arose at about the same time James Watt developed his improved steam engine. Engineers soon thought of using this new form of power to propel boats on water, as well as wagons in coal mines and carriages on roads.

Water transport was critical long before the industrial era. Boats on rivers or barges on canals could carry great weight with relatively little effort, and sailing ships had long been used for global commerce. But while horses could tow a canal barge in any weather, a boat on a larger body of water, such as a river, lake, or ocean, usually needed wind to move, and wind was unreliable. Ships in the eighteenth century sometimes floated in harbors for days or even weeks waiting for enough wind to let them maneuver into open water.

As early as 1707 the French-born inventor Denis Papin experimented with using a paddle wheel to propel a boat. In 1736 an Englishman, Jonathan Hulls (1699–1758), secured a patent for a tugboat powered by a paddle wheel in its stern (rear) driven by a Newcomen steam engine. Watt's improved steam engine promised a great improvement when it was patented in 1769, and it touched off many efforts to apply this new invention to transportation.

An early success using steam to propel a ship was achieved in France, where the Marquis de Joffroy d'Abbans in 1783 used a steam engine to move a boat with a paddle wheel. In 1788, in England, Scottish banker Patrick Miller (1731–1815) designed a boat with paddles between an outer and inner hull and that was driven by a steam engine. Miller put his design to work on a boat that ran along Scotland's Forth and Clyde Canal. Also in Scotland, William Symington (1763–1831) launched the Charlotte Dundas in 1802 using a steam-powered paddle wheel in the stern to propel it on the Forth and Clyde Canal.

In the United States, water transport was especially important as the newly settled country had few good roads but many navigable rivers. In Virginia, an American inventor named James Rumsey (1743–1792) in 1787 exhibited a boat that took in water at the bow (front of the ship) and forced it out through a pipe in the stern: an early form of a jet engine.

In the summer of 1790, another American inventor, John Fitch (1743–1798) of Connecticut, used steam engines to power a boat that used canoe paddles on each side to propel it forward at a speed of six to eight miles per hour. The boat transported passengers between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Bordentown, New Jersey. Passengers looked on the craft as an amusement more than as a serious, reliable form of transportation. After one summer, Fitch shut down the service.

The missing element in the early efforts to apply steam-engine technology to water transport was success in business, rather than technology. Potential customers were not accustomed to technical innovation, and they did not use the new craft often enough to cover the costs. By 1791 the underlying technological challenge had been met; the boats of that period were very similar to the boat that eventually succeeded almost twenty years later. In this respect, the story of the steamboat contains an important lesson of the Industrial Revolution: technology without business success could not change the world.

Thus, the person most closely associated with the successful introduction of steamboats—the American Robert Fulton (1765–1815)—might better be considered a successful business entrepreneur, rather than as the inventor of the steamboat.

Fulton was an artist and prolific inventor who launched a steamboat named the Clermont on the Hudson River in 1807. Simultaneously he launched a successful business ferrying passengers and freight between Albany, New York, and New York City. How he managed this feat is as much a story of politics and business as of technology.

Fulton had left his home in Philadelphia for England in 1786, at age seventeen, to pursue a career as a painter. Seven years later, after achieving modest success as an artist, he devoted his energies to technology. He designed a steam-powered machine for cutting marble—for which he achieved a silver medal for ingenuity from the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Commerce, and Manufactures in London—and then devoted his attention to canal building. At the time, canals were attracting major investment in England as a means of improving inland transportation.

Fulton designed a machine to dig canals, as well as a new method of hauling ships up inclined planes to get over hills and mountains. In 1796 he also published a book, A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation. In 1797 Fulton moved to France, where he designed a working submarine, which he called the Nautilus. He demonstrated the Nautilus to the French navy in 1801, piloting it for seventeen minutes in twenty-five feet of water. Although Fulton's submarine could submerge, maneuver under water, and surface, the French navy was not interested.

But more important for Fulton, while in France he met the new American ambassador, Robert Livingston (1746–1813), a prominent signer of the Declaration of Independence. Before leaving for France, Livingston had persuaded the New York State legislature to grant him an exclusive license to operate steamboats in New York State. But Livingston had no working steamboat. He saw in his fellow American, Robert Fulton, someone who might be able to provide him with one.

In October 1802 the two men signed a formal agreement under which Fulton would develop a steam-powered boat, and Livingston would pay the costs. If the experiment worked, they would become business partners.

Fulton spent the next two-and-a-half years in Paris working on the project. His first boat sank in the Seine River after a storm tossed the boat violently and caused the steam engine to fall through the bottom and into the river. In the summer of 1804, Fulton demonstrated a working model. A Paris newspaper (quoted by Fulton's biographer, H. W. Dickinson) described the boat's first trial this way:

On [August 6, 1803] a trial was made of a new invention, of which the complete and brilliant success should have important consequences for the commerce and internal navigation of France. During the past two or three months there has been seen at the end of the quay Chaillot a boat of curious appearance, equipped with two large wheels mounted on an axle like a cart, while behind these wheels was a kind of large stove with a pipe, as if there was some kind of a small fire engine [steam engine] intended to operate the wheels of the boat.… At six o'clock in the evening, assisted by three persons only, [the builder] put his boat in motion with two other boats in tow behind it, and for an hour and a half he afforded the curious spectacle of a boat moved by wheels like a cart, these wheels being provided with paddles or flat plates and being moved by a fire engine.

In following it along the quay the speed against the current of the Seine appeared to us about that of a rapid pedestrian, that is about 2400 toises [a French measurement equivalent to about 2.2 miles] per hour; while in going down stream it was more rapid.… It was maneuvered with facility, turned to the right and left, came to anchor, started again, and passed by the swimming school.… This mechanism applied to our rivers, the Seine, the Loire, and the Rhone, would be fraught with the most advantageous consequences to our internal navigation. The tows of barges which now require four months to come from Nantes to Paris would arrive promptly in from 10 to 15 days. The author of this brilliant invention is M. Fulton, an American and a celebrated mechanician [mechanic].

Satisfied with his basic design, Fulton ordered a larger steam engine from Boulton and Watt, the English company formed by the steam engine's developer, James Watt. But English authorities refused to permit Boulton and Watt to export a steam engine to France: the two countries were at war, and France was threatening to invade England. Consequently, in the spring of 1804, Fulton returned to England to buy a steam engine that he planned to use in building a full-scale boat in New York.

In England Fulton contracted with the British navy to develop his plans for a torpedo, essentially a floating bomb designed to sink French warships poised to invade England from across the English Channel. It was a controversial idea, not enthusiastically supported by the British navy. Nevertheless, Fulton spent the second half of 1804 and most of 1805 developing a torpedo. In the end, a demonstration Fulton staged did not succeed, and he abandoned the torpedo project to return to New York with his Boulton and Watt steam engine.

In New York, in December 1806, Fulton began building a full-scale model of a steamship to use in his partnership with Livingston. Shortly after noon on Monday, August 17, 1807, the ship—named the Clermont, after Livingston's estate near Albany, New York—was launched, four-and-a-half years after Fulton and Livingston signed their agreement in Paris.

In a letter to a friend, as quoted in Dickinson's biography, Fulton described the Clermont's maiden voyage:

My steamboat voyage to Albany and back has turned out rather more favorably than I had calculated. The distance from New York to Albany is one hundred and fifty miles. I ran it up in thirty-two hours and down in thirty. I had a light breeze against me the whole way both going and coming and the voyage has been performed wholly by the power of the steam-engine. I overtook many sloops and schooners beating to windward and parted with them as if they had been at anchor.

The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved.…

It will give a cheap and quick conveyance to the merchants on the Mississippi, Missouri, and other great rivers which are now laying open their treasures to the enterprise of our countrymen; and although the prospect of personal emolument [wealth] has been some inducement [motivation] to me, yet I feel infinitely more pleasure in reflecting on the immense advantages that my country will draw from the invention.

Important as Fulton's technological achievement was—the Clermont was the first feasible steamboat in the world—it was the business proposition first presented to Fulton by Robert Livingston that succeeded in making the boat a part of history. The story of their business is less about technology than about politics, and about how Livingston was able to influence the government to favor his company and its newly invented steamboat.

It took at least another decade before a steamship ventured beyond inland rivers and crossed the Atlantic. In 1819 the American ship Savannah claimed to be the first steamship to cross the ocean, although the Savannah had sails and relied on the wind for a good deal of the journey. Ships propelled exclusively by steam did not make the ocean crossing until 1838, by which time the propeller had replaced the paddle wheel as the means of propulsion.

For More Information


Ashton, T. S. The Industrial Revolution, 1760–1830. Westport, CT: Green-wood Press, 1986.

Bunch, Bryan H., and Alexander Hellemans. The Timetables of Technology: A Chronology of the Most Important People and Events in the History of Technology. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Crowther, J. G. Scientists of the Industrial Revolution: Joseph Black, James Watt, Joseph Priestley, Henry Cavendish. London: Cresset Press, 1962.

Deane, Phyllis. The First Industrial Revolution. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Mantoux, Paul. The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century: An Outline of the Beginnings of the Modern Factory System in England. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Toynbee, Arnold. Lectures on the Industrial Revolution in England, 1884; reprinted: The Industrial Revolution. Boston: Beacon Press, 1956.


Petroski, Henry. "Harnessing Steam." American Scientist, January/February 1996, p. 15.

"Steam Engines: Puffed Up." Economist, December 25, 1999, p. 99.

Web Sites

Carnegie, Andrew. James Watt. Reproduced on University of Rochester History Resources: Steam Engine Library. (accessed on February 7, 2003).

Dickinson, H. W. "Robert Fulton, Engineer and Artist: His Life and Works." University of Rochester History Resources: Steam Engine Library. (accessed on February 7, 2003).

Hart, Robert. "Reminiscences of James Watt." University of Rochester History Resources: Steam Engine Library. (accessed on February 7, 2003).

Internet Modern History Sourcebook: The Industrial Revolution. (accessed on February 7, 2003).

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The Revolution Begins: Steam Engines, Railroads, and Steamboats

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The Revolution Begins: Steam Engines, Railroads, and Steamboats