Steam Power

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Steam power development during the colonial and early republican periods was initially hesitant but ultimately decisive. Beginning as an import with only slight relevance to the domestic situation, the steam engine then became a power source that was adapted to local needs. Technological breakthroughs eventually placed America at the forefront of steam power development, and by the close of the period it was a technology poised to overrun the American continent.

origins and early applications

Steam power has its beginnings in the British reliance on coal as a fuel and the flooding that occurred as increasingly deep coal seams were mined. The steam engine built by Thomas Newcomen (1663–1729) in 1712 was the first practical application of steam to the problem of pumping out flooded mines. Although the early steam engines were inefficient and troublesome, their widespread adoption in England was ensured because they performed a crucial function and, in most cases, consumed a fuel that was mined on the premises.

The first application of steam power in the New World took place in New Jersey. In 1748 Philip Schuyler, who owned a severely flooded copper mine close to Newark, ordered an engine from the Hornblowers, a family of steam engine builders in Cornwall, England. The machine, accompanied by Josiah Hornblower and numerous duplicate components, was shipped in 1753 and finally made operational in 1755. This engine returned the mine to profitability and continued to operate, sporadically at least, for over fifty years.

Two decades were to pass before the next attempt to employ steam in America. Christopher Colles (1739–1816), an Irish immigrant, undertook the fabrication of two engines for water pumping installations—one in 1773 for a distillery in Philadelphia and another in 1776 for New York City's first public waterworks. Although the Philadelphia engine remained unfinished, these two engines were the first to be constructed in the colonies. One other engine was made about 1780 for pumping water from the mine at Joseph Brown's Hope Furnace near Cranston, Rhode Island.


Just as steam power's origins arose from the English situation, so the first American breakthroughs arose from local needs, specifically the traversal of long distances via water navigation. Developments in England during the final quarter of the eighteenth century were again of assistance. Successive improvements to Newcomen's basic engine by the Scottish engineer and inventor James Watt (1736–1819) had resulted in steam engines that were more thermally efficient, smaller, smoother running, and capable of providing rotary motion.

Although Robert Fulton (1765–1815) is widely accepted as the originator of the steamboat, John Fitch (1743–1798) is credited with operating the first successful steam-powered boat in the United States. But Fitch's 1787 steamboat is to steam navigation as the Schuyler mine engine was to stationary steam development—a successful but isolated first step. Fulton chose New York City as the location for the 17 August 1807 inauguration of his large vessel, the North River Steamboat of Clermont. The Clermont was a success, not only technologically but also economically—Fulton immediately began regular farepaying operation from New York City to Albany and used the proceeds to begin building improved boats. Other steamboat experimenters such as Nicholas Roosevelt and John Stevens and his son Robert began to build similar vessels. Just four years later Fulton's Pittsburgh-built New Orleans departed for its namesake port, and a new era in river navigation in the United States began.

high pressure

In 1804 the American inventor Oliver Evans (1755–1819) provided the major impetus for the American steam revolution when he successfully operated an experimental engine that employed high pressure steam. Richard Trevithick made the same breakthrough completely independently in England at the same time. "High pressure" engines were, for a given power output, more compact than Watt-type engines. Their economy was such that they could be designed for use in both modest and large applications—thereby extending steam power's reach beyond steamboats and pumping installations into flour, sugar, and saw mills. Despite being covered by Evans's patent, the subsequent building and refinement of high pressure engines and boilers took place largely outside the patent system—a circumstance helped no doubt by the isolation of many installations and compounded with grass roots ingenuity, expediency, and commercial considerations. Evans, already known for his 1795 work, The Young Millwright and Miller's Guide, also had considerable influence through his 1805 Abortion of the Young Steam Engineer's Guide, perhaps the most accessible steam treatise of the period. The ubiquitous horizontal stationary engine of nineteenth-century America owed its bare-bones sophistication to the high-pressure steam engine as first applied and adapted to river navigation.


By the late 1820s another era of steam power in America was just beginning—that of the railroad. The earliest successful steam locomotives had been developed for use in English collieries, and by the mid-1820s this technology was being applied to public railways connecting towns and rural communities in the north of England. Predictably, accounts of these ventures found their way to the United States. The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, organized in 1823, proposed the incorporation of a section of railroad into their planned canal route and to that end ordered four locomotives from England. The first to be steamed, the Stourbridge Lion, was road tested in August and September of 1829. It was an outright failure, largely because the locomotive was too heavy for its track. But this, unlike the failures of the earliest steam installations on the American continent, was only the slightest of setbacks. By this time the numbers of practical mechanics—a groundswell of mechanical knowledge diffused in the close to four hundred steamboats plying the Mississippi and its tributaries, and concentrated in machine shops and foundries in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere—was such that this false start did no more than neatly presage the ensuing divergence of American and British railroad practice. At the end of the 1820s working methods rooted in the American situation had emerged—methods that were poised to fully adapt steam technology to the American situation.

See alsoInventors and Inventions; Railroads; Steamboat; Technology; Waterpower .


Hawke, David Freeman. Nuts and Bolts of the Past: A History of American Technology, 1776–1860. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Hunter, Louis C. A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1780–1930. Vol. 2: Steam Power. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985.

——. Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1949; New York: Dover, 1993.

Pursell, Carroll W. Early Stationary Steam Engines in America: A Study in the Migration of a Technology. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and the American Dream. New York: Free Press, 2001.

J. Marc Greuther