Denis Papin

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Denis Papin


French-born British Inventor, Engineer, and Physicist

French-born engineer, physicist, and inventor Denis Papin was responsible for inventing the pressure cooker as well as other innovations. His most important contribution was developing the concept of a steam engine, which was the first step toward the Industrial Revolution.

Born to a Huguenot family, Papin's father, also named Denis, was a government official. It is known that his title was Receiver General of the Domaine de Blois, however the family's specific financial status remains uncertain. It is clear that, throughout his life, Papin had little financial stability and floated from one patron to another.

Although Papin originally left France voluntarily, it is likely that, because of his religious beliefs, the Edict of Nantes kept him in exile. He was educated at the University of Angers. His first pursuits were accomplished in the early 1670s while working with Dutch Physicist Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) at the Royal Library in Paris. Their work on air pump experiments involved using gunpowder to create a vacuum under a piston, allowing pressure from the outside air to force the piston down. His time with Huygens lasted until 1674.

Beginning in 1675, he moved to England to become a tutor to the sons of an unknown member of the aristocracy. Soon, he made the transition to Assistant to Physicist Robert Boyle (1627-1691) in London, where he spent the next four years. However it wasn't until 1681 that Papin achieved independent notoriety by publishing a paper, dedicated to the Royal Society, on the pressure cooker. This closed vessel with a tight-fitting lid kept steam trapped within until pressure forced the boiling point of water to rise considerably. A safety valve prevented explosions. The pressure cooker, which Papin called the steam digester, made faster cooking possible. It was this creation, combined with his earlier work under Huygens, which would later lead to his idea of using steam to drive a piston in a cylinder.

Papin was appointed the Temporary Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society from 1684 until 1687, when he became Professor of Mathematics at the University of Marburg. His next big idea was the steam engine. It used steam to generate pressure. The engine itself was a tube made of metal, closed at one end with a piston inside. Under the piston, a small quantity of water would be heated until it converted into steam, forcing the piston to rise to the edge of the cylinder.

Because of his lack of stable income, Papin was always in pursuit of developing advantageous relationships. He attempted this by creating inventions that would make a spectacle. One example was a steam engine that Papin called "the Machine of the Elector." A demonstration was performed in order to impress Charles-Auguste, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, and therefore elicit monetary support. The apparatus successfully pumped water into a tank at the top of a palace in order to run the fountains in the gardens below. The Landgrave, who spent most of his funds on wars, was center-stage for this and many other demonstrations. While Papin was able to get some funding from him, the Landgrave lost interest regularly.

In 1705, it was Thomas Savery's sketch of the first practical steam engine that inspired Papin's paper on the topic of steam engines, "Ars Nova ad Aquam Ignis Adminiculo Efficacissime Elevandam" ("The New Art of Pumping Water by Using Steam," 1707). Papin continued his developments with a man-powered paddle-wheel boat in 1709. Again he created a successful venture. This one demonstrated the efficiency of using a paddle wheel in place of oars to move steam-driven ships.

Throughout his lifetime, Papin worked on many innovations including a grenade launcher during the War of the Spanish Succession, a mine ventilator, and he even worked with food preservation. Papin moved back to London in 1709 and lived in obscurity until his death three years later.