Thomas Newcomen

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(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.


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


English Inventor

Thomas Newcomen is often acclaimed as the inventor of the steam engine. An ironmonger by training, he converted Thomas Savery's primitive steam pump into a true, if inefficient, source of motive power. Originally developed to remove water from coal mines, the steam engine, as further refined by James Watt, provided the first reliable source of mechanical energy other than muscle, wind, or water power, and thus provided the key technical stimulus for revolutions in both transportation and industrial production.

Thomas Newcomen was born into a family of religious dissenters in Dartmouth, Devonshire, England. Nothing is known with certainty about his education or training, but it appears he entered into business in 1685 as an ironmonger (blacksmith and dealer in metals) with a partner, John Calley, a plumber and a fellow member of the Baptist sect. How Newcomen came to be interested in developing a steam engine, and how much contact Newcomen had with Thomas Savery (1650-1715), also a native of the Devonshire region and the inventor of the steam pump, is also a matter of speculation. Such contact is, however, fairly likely, as Newcomen visited the tin mines in the area and had some idea of their operation and problems.

Savery's steam pump had been developed for the rapidly growing coal mining industry, which had come into being to provide fuel in place of wood for heating, the forests of England having been alarmingly depleted. Coal was available in abundance, but mineshafts were likely to fill with water, which needed to be removed. Savery's invention, introduced around 1700, involved filling a pipeline to the water with steam, then cooling the source of the steam until it condensed to form liquid water, creating a vacuum that would pull the water upwards. Then, using additional steam applied from below, the water was pushed to the surface. Savery's pump, which required steam under pressure, was dangerous to operate as leaks and ruptures often occurred.

Newcomen introduced a cylinder and piston, which could be filled with steam pushing the piston one way and then cooled so that the steam condensed to form liquid water, leaving a near vacuum so that air pressure would push the piston back. Steam pressures only slightly greater than one atmosphere were then required, and atmospheric pressure did most of the work. At first, cooling was accomplished by passing water around the cylinder, but in 1704 or 1705, by a happy accident, cool water leaked into the cylinder, producing immediate condensation for a much faster power cycle. The first successful engine, with cool water injection into the cylinder at the appropriate times, was demonstrated in 1712. It was inefficient in that much of the heat energy was wasted heating up the cylinder after each cooling. The Scottish engineer James Watt (1736-1819) would eliminate this problem by adding a separate condenser, which the steam entered after doing its work on the piston, so that the cylinder could remain hot.

It is now generally agreed that Newcomen was a skilled artisan who did not have a sound understanding of scientific principles but who worked by trial and error, combining bits of technology from earlier inventions. Nonetheless, it was the Newcomen engine, as improved by Watt, that led to the era of steamships and railroads and to factories built around powerful machinery. The steam engine would also serve as the basis for a new branch of physical science—thermodynamics—the study of the interconversion of heat and mechanical work, from which the modern laws of energy conservation and entropy increase would emerge in the nineteenth century.


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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 (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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Thomas Newcomen


English engineer who invented the first atmospheric steam engine. Newcomen was born in Dartmouth, and spent many years as an iron-monger there. Finding out that pumping water out of mines was at the time accomplished through a labor-intensive process, using horses, he spent 10 years trying to create an engine that would complete the task mechanically. Newcomen's engine was comprised of a piston within a vertical cylinder and a huge beam which connected to the mine pumps. The engine was groundbreaking in that it used atmospheric pressure, so as not to be limited by the pressure of steam. The first Newcomen engine was used in a South Staffordshire Colliery in 1712, and within a few years the invention was put into use in mines throughout the country. In 1765, however, Newcomen's engine was overshadowed by that of Scottish mechanical engineer James Watt (1736-1819), who is now considered the true inventor of the steam engine.

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