The inventors of the steam engine - Trevithick, Watt and Newcomen

James Watt is shown devising a major improvement to Glasgow University's Newcomen steam engine Scottish inventor James Watt's machine dominated the early years of the Industrial Revolution

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We live in a golden age of power - we have extraordinary amounts of it at our fingertips, power that in the past only the elite could command.

Consider this: we consume about 10kW of electricity per household in the UK. Without power from burning fossil fuels, that would mean for every household in the country, around 400 slaves, working 12 hour shifts turning a dynamo, to provide enough electricity to light our houses, and fuel our modern lives.

It was steam power that made the difference and steam power still drives almost all electrical generation, whether nuclear fuelled or coal. and it was hard working, practical British inventors who made it possible.

Early pressure cooker

Age of innovation

Painting by Terence Cuneo (1907-1996), showing the London Steam Carriage of 1803 by pioneering Cornish engineer and inventor Richard Trevithick (1771-1833)

They include some who are household names and many who are not. Men like Thomas Newcomen, John "Iron Mad" Wilkinson, James Watt and the Cornish giant, Richard Trevithick.

But the story of the steam engine really begins with King Charles II attending a dinner at the Royal Society in 1682. The meat was deliciously tender, the bones had melted into jelly, thanks to a new way of cooking food, invented by physicist Denis Papin.

One guest described the meal as "the most delicious I have ever seen, or tasted". Papin's secret? He had harnessed the power of high pressure steam - he had invented the pressure cooker.

Papin would also build the world's first steam powered boat, which was considerably less successful, and die in poverty, but he had shown what steam could do.

The baton was picked up by a lay preacher and iron monger living in Devon called Thomas Newcomen.

In the early 1700s there were productive copper mines in Devon providing welcome work for the locals, but the mines frequently flooded. What was needed was a giant, inexhaustible pump.

People had tried building steam engines before Newcomen but there was a problem. The metal available for would-be inventors was too weak to contain high pressure steam and attempts to do so frequently ended in catastrophic explosions.

Newcomen adopted a completely different approach. Rather than use steam to drive a piston, he used steam to suck.

In his machine steam was released into a chamber where it was cooled and condensed, creating a vacuum. That vacuum then drew down a piston which, via a pulley, sucked water out of the mine.

Catalyst of war

Mosley on great British inventions

Michael Mosley

"Our geography... separated us intellectually as well as physically from the rest of Europe.

It made our relatively affluent, well-educated nation turn to science at a time when the rest of the world did not. It gave us a head start."

It was slow and incredibly inefficient but it was, at last, a practical steam engine. The first of Newcomen's engines was put to work in 1712 and they went largely unchallenged for over 50 years.

The next breakthrough was linked, as inventions often are, with the needs of war. 18th century cannon were inaccurate and liable to explode, killing the gunners.

The problem was the barrels. When gunpowder is ignited in the confined space of a gun it is the pressure produced by rapidly expanding hot gas that drives the cannon ball forward.

But unless the inside of the barrel is smooth and well shaped then the gas will escape round the outside of the ball and much of the power of the explosion will be wasted. Enter John "Iron Mad" Wilkinson.

Wilkinson was an industrialist with a passion for cast iron. The owner of a number of huge forges he built the world's first cast iron arch bridge at Broseley and had himself buried in a cast iron coffin.

An 1805 advertisement for Richard Trevithick's portable steam engine Between 1800 and 1815 Trevithick built a number of steam-powered road vehicles and railway locomotives

In 1774 he invented a way to bore a smooth core out of a solid block of metal and using this technique built better cannon.

But his technique also proved invaluable for a Scottish inventor called James Watt who was trying to make the Newcomen engine more efficient. Watt needed the piston chamber to be as airtight as possible and Wilkinson showed him how this could be done.

Watt made numerous other improvements to the engine, producing a machine that dominated the early years of the Industrial Revolution.

But Watt's low pressure steam engine was dead-end technology and would in time be replaced by high pressure steam engines built by the likes of Cornishman Richard Trevithick.

Ironically, although Watt is seen as the father of steam he did all he could to prevent the development of these new engines, which threatened his commercial interests.

The steam engine marked the start of a technological revolution that made Britain rich, changed the world and dragged hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty.

But the story of the steam engine also illustrates how long and random the process of invention often is and that those who get remembered and glorified, like Watt, are just a part of a much bigger picture.

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