Steam in the Industrial Revolution

The steam engine, either used on its own or as part of a train, is the iconic invention of the industrial revolution. Experiments in the seventeenth century turned, by the middle of the nineteenth, into a technology which powered huge factories, allowed deeper mines and moved a transport network.

Industrial Power pre 1750

Before 1750, the traditional arbitrary starting date for the industrial revolution, the majority of British – and European – industries were traditional, and relied on water as the main power source.

This was a well established technology, using streams and waterwheels, and was both proven and widely available in the British landscape. There were major problems however, because you had to be near suitable water, which could lead you to isolated places, and it tended to freeze or dry up. On the other hand, it was cheap. Water was also vital for transport, with rivers and coastal trade. Animals were also used for both power and transport, but these were expensive to run because of their food and care. For rapid industrialisation to take place, alternative sources of power were needed.

The Development of Steam

People had experimented with steam powered engines in the seventeenth century as a solution to power problems, and in 1698 Thomas Savery invented his ‘Machine for Raising Water by Fire’. Used in Cornish tin mines, this pumped water with a simple up and down motion that had only limited use and couldn’t be applied to machinery.

It also had a tendency to explode, and steam development was held back by the patent  Savery held for thirty five years. In 1712 Thomas Newcomen developed a different type of engine and bypassed the patents. This was first used in Staffordshire coal mines, had most of the old limitations and was expensive to run, but had the distinct advantage of not blowing up.

In the second half of the eighteenth century came inventor James Watt, a man who built on the development of others and became a major contributor to steam technology. In 1763 Watt added a separate condenser to Newcomen’s engine which saved fuel; during this period he was working with people involved in the iron producing industry. Then Watt teamed up with a former toy manufacturer who had changed profession. In 1781 Watt, former toy man Boulton and Murdoch built the ‘rotary action steam engine’. This was the major breakthrough because it could be used to power machinery, and in 1788 a centrifugal governor was fitted to keep the engine running at an even speed. Now there was an alternative power source for wider industry and after 1800 the mass production of steam engines began.

However, considering steams reputation in a revolution which is traditionally said to run from 1750, steam was relatively slow to be adopted. A lot of industrialisation had already taken place before steam power was in major use, and a lot had grown and improved without it. Cost was initially one factor holding engines back, as industrialists used other sources of power to keep start up costs down and avoid major risks.

Some industrialists had a conservative attitude which only slowly turned to steam. Perhaps more importantly, the first steam engines were inefficient, using a lot of coal - the very first were prone to explosion – and needed large scale production facilities to work properly, while much industry was small scale. It took time – until the 1830s/40s – for coal prices to fall and industry to become large enough to need more power.

The Effects of Steam on Textiles

The textile industry had, over time, used many different sources of power, from water to human in the many labourers of the domestic system. The first factory had been built at the start of the eighteenth century and used water power, because at the time textiles could be produced with only a small amount of power. Expansion took the form of expanding over more rivers for the waterwheels.

When steam powered machinery became possible c. 1780, textiles were initially slow to adopt the technology, as it was expensive and required a high starting cost and caused trouble. However, over time the costs of steam fell and use grew. Water and steam power became even in 1820, and by 1830 steam was well ahead, producing a large increase in the productivity of the textile industry as new factories were created.

The Effects on Coal and Iron

The coal, iron and steel industries mutually stimulated each other during the revolution. There was an obvious need for coal to power steam engines, but these engines also allowed for deeper mines and greater coal production, making the fuel cheaper and steam cheaper, thus producing more demand for coal.

The iron industry also benefited. At first steam was used to pump water back up into reservoirs, but this soon developed and steam was used to power bigger and better blast furnaces, allowing for an increase in iron production. Rotary action steam engines could be linked to other parts of the iron process, and in 1839 the steam hammer was first in use. Steam and iron were linked as early as 1722 when Darby, an iron magnate, and Newcomen worked together to improve the quality of iron for producing steam engines. Better iron meant more precision engineering for steam. More on coal and iron.

How important was Steam?

The steam engine might be the icon of the industrial revolution, but how important was it in this first industrial stage? Historians like Deane have said the engine had little impact at first, as it was only applicable to large scale industrial processes and until 1830 the majority were small scale. She agrees that some industries used it, such as iron and coal, but that the capital outlay only became worthwhile for the majority after 1830 because of delays in producing viable engines, high costs at the start, and the ease with which manual labour can be hired and fired compared to a steam engine. Peter Mathias argues much the same thing, but stresses that steam should still be considered one of the key advances of the industrial revolution, one which occurred near the end, initiating a second steam driven phase.