Biography of Thomas Newcomen, Inventor of the Steam Engine

Thomas Newcomen's engine

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Thomas Newcomen (February 28, 1663–August 5, 1729) was a blacksmith from Dartmouth, England who assembled the prototype for the first modern steam engine. His machine, built in 1712, was known as the "Atmospheric Steam Engine."

Fast Facts: Thomas Newcomen

  • Known For: Inventor of the atmospheric steam engine
  • Born: February 28, 1663 in Dartmouth, England
  • Parents: Elias Newcomen and his first wife Sarah
  • Died: August 5, 1729 in London, England
  • Education: Trained as an ironmonger (blacksmith) in Exeter
  • Spouse: Hannah Waymouth (m. July 13, 1705)
  • Children: Thomas (d. 1767), Elias (d. 1765), Hannah

Before Thomas Newcomen's time, steam engine technology was in its infancy. Inventors such as Edward Somerset of Worcester, Newcomen's neighbor Thomas Savery, and French philosopher John Desaguliers were all researching the technology before Thomas Newcomen began his experiments. Their research inspired inventors such as Newcomen and James Watt to invent practical and useful steam-powered machines.

Early Life

Thomas Newcomen was born on February 28, 1663, one of six children of Elias Newcomen (d. 1702) and his wife Sarah (d. 1666). The family was solidly middle-class: Elias was a freeholder, shipowner, and merchant. After Sarah died, Elias remarried Alice Trenhale on January 6, 1668, and it was Alice that raised Thomas, his two brothers, and three sisters.

Thomas likely served as an apprentice at an ironmonger in Exeter: although there is no record of it, he began to trade as a blacksmith in Dartmouth about 1685. Documentary evidence has him purchasing quantities of iron up to 10 tons from various mills between 1694 and 1700, and he mended the Dartmouth Town Clock in 1704. Newcomen had a retail store at the time, selling tools, hinges, nails, and chains.

On July 13, 1705, Newcomen married Hannah Waymouth, the daughter of Peter Waymouth of Marlborough. They eventually had three children: Thomas, Elias, and Hannah.

Partnership With John Calley

Thomas Newcomen was assisted in his steam research by John Calley (c. 1663–1717), a man from Brixton, Devonshire. Both are listed on the patent for the Atmospheric Steam Engine. John Calley (sometimes spelled Cawley) was a glazier—some sources say he was a plumber—who served out an apprenticeship in Newcomen's workshops and continued working with him afterward. Together they likely began working on the steam engine in the late 17th century, and by 1707, Newcomen expanded his businesses, taking out or renewing new leases on a number of properties in Dartmouth.

Neither Newcomen nor Calley was educated in mechanical engineering, and they corresponded with scientist Robert Hooke, asking him to advise them about their plans to build a steam engine with a steam cylinder containing a piston similar to that of Denis Papin's. Hooke advised against their plan, but, fortunately, the obstinate and uneducated mechanics stuck to their plans: In 1698, Newcomen and Calley made an experimental, 7-inch-diameter brass cylinder, sealed with a leather flap around the edge of the piston. The purpose of the first steam engines like the ones experimented with by Newcomen was to drain water out of coal mines.

Thomas Savery

Newcomen was considered an eccentric and a schemer by locals, but he did know about the steam engine invented by Thomas Savery (1650–1715). Newcomen visited Savery's home in Modbury, England, 15 miles from where Newcomen lived. Savery hired Newcomen, a skilled blacksmith, and ironmonger, to forge a working model of his engine. Newcomen was allowed to make a copy of the Savery machine for himself, which he set up in his own backyard, where he and Calley worked on improving the Savery design.

Although the engine that Newcomen and Calley built was not a total success, they were able to obtain a patent in 1708. That was for an engine combining a steam cylinder and piston, surface condensation, a separate boiler, and separate pumps. Also named on the patent was Thomas Savery, who at that time held the exclusive rights to use surface condensation.

The Atmospheric Steam Engine

The atmospheric engine, as first designed, used a slow process of condensation by applying condensing water to the exterior of the cylinder, to produce the vacuum, which in turn caused the strokes of the engine to take place at very long intervals. More improvements were made, which immensely increased the rapidity of condensation. Thomas Newcomen's first engine produced 6 or 8 strokes a minute, which he improved to 10 or 12 strokes.

Newcomen's engine passed steam through the cock and up into the cylinder, which equilibrated the pressure of the atmosphere, and allowed the heavy pump rod to fall, and, by the greater weight acting through the beam, to raise the piston to the proper position. The rod carried a counterbalance if needed. The cock then opened, and a jet of water from the reservoir entered the cylinder, producing a vacuum by the condensation of the steam. The pressure of the air above the piston then forced it down, again raising the pump rods, and thus the engine worked on indefinitely.

The pipe is used for the purpose of keeping the upper side of the piston covered with water, to prevent air leaks—an invention of Thomas Newcomen. Two gauge-cocks and a safety valve were built in; the pressure used was hardly greater than that of the atmosphere, and the weight of the valve itself was ordinarily sufficient to keep the pipe down. The condensing water, together with the water of condensation, flowed off through the open pipe.

Thomas Newcomen modified his steam engine so that it could power the pumps used in mining operations that removed water from mine shafts. He added an overhead beam, from which the piston was suspended at one end and the pump rod at the other.

Death

Thomas Newcomen died on August 5, 1729, in London at a friend's house. His wife Hannah outlived him, she moved to Marlborough, and died in 1756. His son Thomas became a serge maker (cloth maker) in Taunton, and his son Elias became an ironmonger (but not an inventor) like his father.

Legacy

At first, Thomas Newcomen's steam engine was seen as a rehash of earlier ideas. It was compared to a piston engine powered by gunpowder, designed (but never built) by Christian Huyghens, with a substitution of steam for the gasses generated by the explosion of gunpowder. Part of the issue why Newcomen's work was not recognized might have been that, compared to the other inventors of the day, Newcomen was a middle-class blacksmith, and the more educated and elite inventors simply couldn't imagine that such a person would be able to invent something new.

It was later recognized that Thomas Newcomen and John Calley had improved the method of condensation used in the Savery engine. French inventor and philosopher John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683–1744), wrote that Newcomen's steam engine came into extensive use in all the mining districts, particularly in Cornwall, and was also applied to the drainage of wetlands, the supply of water to towns, and ship propulsion. The first steam-powered locomotive was invented in the first decade of the 19th century, based in part on Newcomen's technology.

Sources

  • Allen, J.S. "Newcomen, Thomas (1663–1729)." A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1: 1500–1830. Eds. Skempton, A.W. et al. London: Thomas Telford Publishing and Institution of Civil Engineers, 2002. 476–78.
  • Dickinson, Henry Winram. "Newcomen and his Vacuum Engine." A Short History of the Steam Engine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 29–53.
  • Karwatka, Dennis. "Thomas Newcomen, Inventor of the Steam Engine." Tech Directions 60.7:9, 2001. 
  • Prosser, R.B. "Thomas Newcomen (1663–1729)." Dictionary of National Biography Volume 40 Myllar—Nicholls. Ed. Lee, Sidney. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1894. 326–29.