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Thomas Newcomen

The Steam Engines of Thomas Newcomen


Thomas Newcomen's engine

Illustration of steam train and smaller images of Rocket steam locomotive and mechanism of Thomas Newcomen's engine

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Who was the man who put together the prototype for the first modern steam engine? It was Thomas Newcomen a blacksmith from Dartmouth, England and the engine invented by him in 1712 was known as the "Atmospheric Steam Engine".

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


Thomas Newcomen & Thomas Savery

Not much is known about the personal history of Thomas Newcomen. The inventor was considered an eccentric and a schemer by locals. However, Thomas Newcomen did know about the steam engine invented by Thomas Savery. Newcomen visited Savery's home in Modbury, England, fifteen miles from where Newcomen lived. Thomas Newcomen was hired by Savery for his blacksmithing and iron-forging skills, to forge for Savery's engine. Newcomen was allowed to make a copy of the Savery machine for himself, which he set it up in his own backyard, where he worked on improving the Savery design.


Thomas Newcomen & John Calley

Thomas Newcomen was assisted by John Calley in his steam research, the two inventors are listed on the patent for the Atmospheric Steam Engine.

Thomas Newcomen and John Calley were both uneducated in mechanical engineering and 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.

Thomas Newcomen and John Calley built an engine that while not a total success, they were able to patent in 1708. It was 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.


Progress of the Atmospheric Steam Engine

The atmospheric engine, as first designed, had a slow process of condensation by the application of the condensing water to the exterior of the cylinder, to produce the vacuum, 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 and he improved that to 10 or 12 strokes.


Photo of Thomas Newcomen's Atmospheric Steam Engine

In the photo listed above - a boiler is depicted. Steam passes from it through the cock, and up into the cylinder, equilibrating the pressure of the atmosphere, and allowing the heavy pump rod, to fall, and, by the greater weight acting through the beam, to raise the piston, to the position shown. The rod carries a counterbalance, if needed. The cock being shut, is then opened, and a jet of water from the reservoir, enters the cylinder, producing a vacuum by the condensation of the steam. The pressure of the air above the piston now forces it down, again raising the pump rods, and thus the engine works 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, are represented in the photo. Here, the pressure used was hardly greater than that of the atmosphere, and the weight of the valve itself was ordinarily sufficient to keep it down. The condensing water, together with the water of condensation, flows off through the open pipe.


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