Thomas Savery and the Beginning of the Steam Engine

Steam engine venting steam
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Thomas Savery was born to a well-known family in Shilston, England sometime around 1650. He was well educated and exhibited a great fondness for mechanics, mathematics, experimentation and invention.

Savery's Early Inventions 

One of Savery's earliest inventions was a clock, which remains in his family to this day and is considered an ingenious piece of mechanism. He went on to invent and patented arrangement of paddle wheels driven by capstans to propel vessels in calm weather. He pitched the idea to the British Admiralty and the Wavy Board but met with no success. The principal objector was the surveyor of the Navy who dismissed Savery with the remark, "And have interloping people, that have no concern with us, pretend to contrive or invent things for us?"

Savery was not deterred -- he fitted his apparatus to a small vessel and exhibited its operation on the Thames, although the invention was never introduced by the Navy.

The First Steam Engine

Savery invented the steam engine sometime after the debut of his paddle wheels, an idea first conceived by Edward Somerset, Marquis of Worcester, as well as a few other earlier inventors. It’s been rumored that Savery read Somerset’s book first describing the invention and subsequently attempted to destroy all evidence of it in anticipation of his own invention. He allegedly bought up all copies he could find and burned them. 

Although the story isn’t particularly credible, a comparison of the drawings of the two engines -- Savery's and Somerset's -- shows a striking resemblance. If nothing else, Savery should be given credit for the successful introduction of this "semi-omnipotent" and "water-commanding" engine. He patented the design of his first engine on July 2, 1698. A working model was submitted to the Royal Society of London.

The Road to the Patent

Savery faced constant and embarrassing expense in the construction of his first steam engine. He had to keep the British mines -- and particularly the deep pits of Cornwall -- free from water. He finally completed the project and conducted some successful experiments with it, exhibiting a model of his "fire engine" before King William III and his court at Hampton Court in 1698. Savery then obtained his patent without delay.

The title of the patent reads:

"A grant to Thomas Savery of the sole exercise of a new invention by him invented, for raising of water, and occasioning motion to all sorts of mill works, by the important force of fire, which will be of great use for draining mines, serving towns with water, and for the working of all sorts of mills, when they have not the benefit of water nor constant winds; to hold for 14 years; with usual clauses."

Introducing His Invention to the World

Savery next went about letting the world know about his invention. He began a systematic and successful advertising campaign, missing no opportunity to make his plans not merely known but well understood. He obtained permission to appear with his model fire engine and to explain its operation at a meeting of the Royal Society. The minutes of that meeting read:

"Mr. Savery entertained the Society with showing his engine to raise water by the force of fire. He was thanked for showing the experiment, which succeeded according to expectation, and was approved of." 

Hoping to introduce his fire engine to the mining districts of Cornwall as a pumping engine, Savery wrote a prospectus for general circulation, "The Miner's Friend; or, A Description of an Engine to Raise Water by Fire.” 

Implementation of the Steam Engine

Savery's prospectus was printed in London in 1702. He proceeded to distribute it among the proprietors and managers of mines, who were finding at that time that the flow of water at certain depths was so great as to prevent operation. In many cases, the cost of drainage left no satisfactory margin of profit. Unfortunately, although Savery's fire engine began to be used for supplying water to towns, large estates, country houses and other private establishments, it did not come into general use among the mines. The risk for explosion of the boilers or receivers was too great. 

There were other difficulties in the application of the Savery engine to many kinds of work, but this was the most serious. In fact, explosions did occur with fatal results.

When used in mines, the engines were necessarily placed within 30 feet or less of the lowest level and could potentially become submerged if the water should rise above that level. In many cases this would result in the loss of the engine. The mine would remain "drowned" unless another engine should be procured to pump it out.

The consumption of fuel with these engines was very great as well. The steam could not be generated economically because the boilers used were simple forms and presented too little heating surface to secure a complete transfer of heat from the gases of combustion to the water within the boiler. This waste in the generation of steam was followed by still more serious waste in its application. Without expansion to the expulsion of water from a metallic receiver, the cold and wet sides absorbed heat with the greatest avidity. The great mass of the liquid was not heated by the steam and was expelled at the temperature at which it was raised from below.

Improvements to the Steam Engine

Savery later began work with Thomas Newcomen on an atmospheric steam engine. Newcomen was an English blacksmith who invented this improvement over Savery's previous design.

The Newcomen steam engine used the force of atmospheric pressure. His engine pumped steam into a cylinder. The steam was then condensed by cold water, which created a vacuum on the inside of the cylinder. The resulting atmospheric pressure operated a piston, creating downward strokes. Unlike the engine Thomas Savery had patented in 1698, the intensity of pressure in Newcomen’s engine was not limited by the pressure of the steam. Together with John Calley, Newcomen built his first engine in 1712 atop a water-filled mineshaft and used it to pump water out of the mine. The Newcomen engine was the predecessor to the Watt engine and it was one of the most interesting pieces of technology developed during the 1700's.

James Watt was an inventor and mechanical engineer born in Greenock, Scotland, renowned for his improvements of the steam engine. While working for the University of Glasgow in 1765, Watt was assigned the task of repairing a Newcomen engine, which was considered inefficient but still the best steam engine of its time. He began to work on several improvements to Newcomen's design. Most notable was his 1769 patent for a separate condenser connected to a cylinder by a valve. Unlike Newcomen's engine, Watt's design had a condenser that could be kept cool while the cylinder was hot. Watt's engine soon became the dominant design for all modern steam engines and helped bring about the Industrial Revolution. A unit of power called the watt was named after him.

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Bellis, Mary. "Thomas Savery and the Beginning of the Steam Engine." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, January 26). Thomas Savery and the Beginning of the Steam Engine. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Thomas Savery and the Beginning of the Steam Engine." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).