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The Invention of the Steam Engine : The Life of James Watt
Part 4: The Steam Engine Gains Popularity
James Watt's Steam Engine circa 1774
The Life of James Watt
- Part I: The Early Life of James Watt and his introduction to the steam engine
- Part 2: James Watt partners with industrialist, Matthew Boulton
- Part 3: The Firm of Boulton & Watt
- Part 4: The Steam Engine Grows in Popularity
- Part 5: Conclusion
Related Research Material
- A Second biography of James Watt
- James Watt partners with Matthew Boulton
- Pictures of James Watt steam engine design
- History of Steam Engines
- Industrial Revolution
This is important in any history of the growth of capital, since any business that could afford the initial cost of the erection of one of Boulton and Watt's engines must have possessed a large amount of capital. Moreover, the capitalist nature of such businesses is confirmed by the fact that they were able to use power on a large scale, and could afford to lock up their resources in fixed capital. The history of the introduction of the steam engine into industry falls into two obvious and natural parts. The first of these extends from the earliest Newcomen engine to October 25, 1781, when James Watt patented his rotary motion and the second period began.

It is very difficult to find out exactly how many of the old atmospheric engines were in use in England before Watt invented the separate condenser. Newcomen, himself, probably only erected about six or seven. An advertisement in the London Gazette for August, 1716, says, " that there are diverse engines of this invention now at work in the several counties of Stafford, Warwick, Cornwall, and Flint." The use of these steam engines spread rapidly, especially for coal-mines in the Newcastle district. A certain William Brown, of Throckley, on the Tyne, began to erect steam engines in 1756, at which date, an engine was still " a great rarity," and from 1757-76 Brown personally supervised the erection of twenty-four steam engines, mostly in the Newcastle district.

When Smeaton turned his attention to steam engines, he attempted to compile a list of atmospheric engines then existing, making a very careful investigation of the one erected by Newcomen, or, probably more accurately, by his partner, Cahey, in 1717, at Austhorpe, where Smeaton lived.

Smeaton collected a list of a hundred engines that had been erected on the Newcastle coal-field, or near it, since the beginning of the century, he says, that many of these had been worn out and given up, but those that were then in action amounted to fifty-seven, of a probable horse-power of 1,188. Smeaton, however, suspected their performance to be very small compared with their dimensions, and their consumption of fuel to be very great.

In Cornwall, he says, that there were, in 1770 about eighteen large engines, that is engines with 60 in, cylinders, but these were probably not all the steam engines then in use in that county, for a Cornish estimate puts the number of engines erected between 1740 and I777 at sixty. Many of these, like the northern ones, were, no doubt, disused, which would account for the smallness of Smeaton's total.

Moreover, in London, which had had an organized water supply since the fourteenth century, steam engines were used to raise the water from the Thames or other streams to the houses, and there were about ten engines so employed in 1775.

These were the main uses of such engines as can be traced. There were several used for returning water to drive water wheels, which, in turn, blew furnaces or drove mills, and at least two engines were exported besides the French one already mentioned. One of these was built at Carron, under Smeaton's direction, and was sent to Cronstadt to help to pump water out of one of Peter the Great's new dry docks, and the other was sent to Rotterdam to drain 7,000 acres that were under water.

Smeaton and Brindley had each designed some of these engines ; but the latter had soon abandoned engine building, in favour of surveying and canal construction, just as Watt abandoned canals for the steam engine. Smeaton, however, spent a great part of his energies on evolving a successful and more economical steam engine, and even before Watt's invention of the separate condenser, had largely improved the performance of the atmospheric engine. His best engines were at a London water works and at a Cornish mine.

Thus it would appear that the maximum number of engines of the old type working, in 1775, was approximately 130.

All these were working very expensively and intermittently. The first pumping engines, then, had been of use mainly in mines, which was the purpose for which they had been invented, and they were also being used for pumping water in water-works, in brine works, and to feed streams that drove the water wheels of mills. The rotary engine, on the other hand, could be used for everything, and enabled regular and cheap power to be applied to all industrial undertakings. When it was announced that Boulton was to become a partner in a new and improved steam engine, in 1771, immediately applications and inquiries for engines were received from Cornish copper mines, the York Buildings Company, which supplied Piccadilly with water, and a mining company in Derbyshire.

Then, when tile partnership was finally fixed up and they started to get orders, these were the main types of enterprise for which engines were supplied.

The first engine erected was that constructed at Kinneil, and was employed to return the water to the mill, at Soho, and thus to assist in driving the works by water-power.

The next engines were built at Soho and Broseley, one for the Bloomfield Colliery and one for the Broseley iron-works, to blow the bellows, for which purpose the reciprocating engine was also well fitted. Then followed a pumping engine at Hawkesbury Colliery, and one for Messrs. Cook & Co.'s Distillery, at Stratford le-Bow.

This was the output of the first year, and for these purposes the reciprocating engine was ideal. However, inquiries reached Soho for engines for other purposes. In June, 1775, Samuel Rowe, of Maccles- field, inquired about a "Steam wheel for the purpose of turning a Silk Mill," which was then bring turned by horse-power. Boulton replies that they have a rotative engine, but, as yet, they cannot be very precise about it.

John Collet, of the Glass House, London, inquired for a " Steam wheel applied to the turning of laps and grinding of stones for the polishing of steel work," and was met with the same indefinite answer. However, in November, 1776, an inquiry from a Sheffield firm that required a rotary motion is answered by a suggestion, that until the rotary engine is perfected, a reciprocating engine be used to raise the water and drive the machines by water power, as at Soho itself.

Thus it appears that not only were the mining and other works that required pumping and blowing engines eager for steam power, but also the generality of works that already possessed machinery driven by power.

The inquiries increased rapidly from about ten, in 1775, to twenty, in 1776, until in May, 1778, Boulton & Watt were refusing to accept orders for engines to be begun before l779.

Though inquiries came from all types of industry, the orders which were executed were mainly for mines, water works, brine works, feeding canals, distilleries, and feeding water-wheels.

These types of engine, then, provided the main business of the firm until the invention of the rotary engine, with its " sun and planet motion," in 1781. The largest number of engines, however, was erected in Cornwall, where the necessity for them was greatest.

The difficulties which the copper miners had to overcome, and the dangers attendant on the flooding of the mines by water, had had a very discouraging effect on the enterprise of the Cornish mining adventurers, and many mines were allowed to go out of work because those who held shares' in them decided not to throw good money after bad. In this position they were naturally unwilling to spend large sums on new engines, whose success in clearing the water was, at any rate, doubtful, if not impossible. Thus, though Boulton & Watt received inquiries from Cornwall, the orders did not mature. In 1776 they decided to erect one engine free of charge, to be sold to the adventurers if successful.

This was, therefore, done on an audit in the Chacewater mine in 1778, and, proving entirely successful, brought an immediate rush of Cornish orders, with which the firm were largely occupied for the next three years, erecting five engines in 1781 for the Consolidated Mines. The engines erected before the end of 1782 were all reciprocating engines, and Matthew Boulton compiled a statement of engines, and their conditions, in September 1782.

There was no great demand for engines for public water works, and the small engines which were to supply private houses with water, were "small Gimcrack things," that hardly repaid erecting, for there was no standardization, and they had to be sold outright. The use of the engine for furnaces and forges was also very limited, for, as yet, the great majority of the iron was smelted by small capitalists still using wood as fuel, and who worked in localities where such power as was necessary could easily be obtained from streams and water-wheels.

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