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You are in: Devon > Discover Devon > Famous Devonians > Newcomen's steam revolution

Thomas Newcomen's Atmospheric Engine

Thomas Newcomen's Atmospheric Engine

Newcomen's steam revolution

Inventor Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729) designed the world's first successful atmospheric steam engine. His invention earned him a place as one of the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution.

Born in Dartmouth in 1663, Thomas Newcomen made a significant contribution to the industrial revolution with his invention of the atmospheric engine.

By 1685 Newcomen had set himself up as an ironmonger in his home town.

Some of his biggest customers were the mine owners in Cornwall, who faced considerable difficulties with flooding, as the mines became progressively deeper.

The standard methods used to remove the water - manual pumping, or teams of horses hauling buckets on a rope - were slow and expensive, and they were looking for an alternative.

In 1712 Newcomen invented the world's first successful atmospheric steam engine.

The engine pumped water using a vacuum created by condensed steam.

It became an important method of draining water from deep mines and was therefore a vital component in the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

Newcomen's invention enabled mines to be drained to greater depths than had previously been economically possible and so helped provide the coal, iron and other metals that were vital to the expansion of industry.

The atmospheric engine can, with some justification, claim to be the single most important invention of the Industrial Revolution.

Newcomen Engine

Newcomen Engine

While it had an efficiency of only one per cent, it was cheaper than using horses to power a pump.

Newcomen's first working engine was installed at a coal mine at Dudley Castle in Staffordshire in 1712.

It had a cylinder 21 inches in diameter and nearly eight feet long, and it worked at 12 strokes a minute, raising 10 gallons of water from a depth of 156 feet.

The engines were rugged and reliable and worked day and night - a factor which made them hugely successful.

By the time Thomas Newcomen died in 1729, there were at least 100 of his engines working in Britain and across Europe.

They were used throughout the 18th century and were still influential into the 20th century.

One engine at Pentich was still operating 127 years after it was first installed.

However Newcomen didn't die a wealthy man. He received little credit for his invention, most of the limelight falling onto James Watt who refined Newcomen's idea.

The principle was used in the following century to create the 'Atmospheric Railway' where a train ran along lines, being propelled by the pressure difference created in a tube connected to steam engine houses along the route.

Animated illustration is used courtesy of the Newcomen Society of the United States.

last updated: 30/01/2008 at 17:13
created: 30/01/2008

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