Science & Environment

Tricentenary for steam pioneer Thomas Newcomen

Commemorative stamp of Thomas Newcomen's engine (Image courtesy of Royal Mail)
Image caption Newcomen's achievement featured in a recent set of Royal Mail commemorative stamps

A series of conferences focusing on energy is being held around the UK to mark the 300th anniversary of the world's first steam engine.

In 1712, Devon-born Thomas Newcomen's engine began pumping water from a coal mine in Dudley, West Midlands.

The invention allowed miners to extract previously inaccessible coal.

The latest conference, organised by the Newcomen Society, is being held in Manchester and focuses on the development of the UK's nuclear sector.

"He was the engineer who first made a steam engine that could be used in industry, and therefore in commerce," explained the Newcomen Society's Michael Bailey.

"Engineering before his achievements was very much serving a rural community, with things such as water wheels and windmills.

"At this time, coal mines were just growing just in this country because we had effectively de-wooded ourselves.

"Because [charcoal] was no longer available as a result of the lack of woodlands, the demand for coal grew rapidly."

However, the supply was limited because as the mines went deeper, they became prone to flooding; hence the need for a device to pump out the water in order to extract previously inaccessible coal.

Once it became operational in September 1712, Mr Newcomen's design was quickly embraced by other mines.

His steam engine has been credited as being a key player in igniting the Industrial Revolution.

Nuclear centred

The Manchester conference is focusing on the UK's leading role in developing civil nuclear power stations.

Image caption The UK was the first nation in the world to have a commercial-scale civil nuclear power station

"The North-West of England is where research and development within the nuclear sector is dominant," said Dr Bailey.

"Manchester and the region is the epicentre for the UK's nuclear industry."

Among the speakers at the gathering, hosted by the Museum of Science and Industry (Mosi), is Paul Howarth, managing director for the UK's National Nuclear Laboratory.

He told BBC News: "Newcomen was the father of the steam engine, and Manchester became the centre of the steam-powered Industrial Revolution."

Prof Howarth, co-founder of the University of Manchester's Dalton Institute, explained that the nuclear theme for the regional conference was appropriate.

"[This] is where first John Dalton, and later Ernest Rutherford and Hans Geiger, did their vital work on atomic theory. A century later, the region remains at the heart of the UK nuclear industry with around half of Britain's nuclear industry located here.

"In organisations like the National Nuclear Laboratory, we are keeping that spirit of nuclear innovation alive today as we harness the industry's best brains and most modern laboratory facilities to make sure that nuclear facilities in the UK are safe, clean and based on the best technology possible."

The museum is also using the conference to launch an appeal to collect more items that help tell the region's role in the development of nuclear energy.

Energy curator John Beckerson said: "From the steam power pioneered in the industrial revolution to the latest research in the nuclear industry, it's an innovative sector.

"We want to develop our energy collections in the years ahead to reflect changes in energy technology. The experts at this conference will be advising me on the best objects to help us tell these stories."

The conferences by the Newcomen Society, which was founded in 1920 and has almost 1,000 members all over the globe, will conclude at the end of July.

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