A brief history of steam power.
In the history of modern civilization, there are only a few examples of an invention literally changing the course of humanity. Obvious examples such as the airplane or the compass, and less obvious examples such as the printing press and lateen sail. The steam engine can be counted in this illustrious company.
Why is the steam engine so signifigant?
The steam engine was the first form of human generated power. With it, you could run a factory, anywhere you chose to build the factory. You could move a ship, regardless of what the weather or the winds were doing. You could power a locomotive, and pull hundreds of tons at high speed. Steam power not only ran the factories of the Industrial Revolution, it also speeded up and made more reliable, large scale transportation. In many ways, the story of the steam engine is the story of modern invention - not brilliant inspiration on the part of an individual, but the combined efforts of many people, each building on what someone else had discovered. No one person invented the steam engine.
Life before the steam engine
To fully appreciate the impact of the steam engine, let us go back to the time before the steam engine, the 1600's, In this time, power could be obtained from perhaps three sources:
Wind. Wind power is free, and harnessing it does not involve complex machinery, really nothing more than a sail, or in the case of a windmill, a very large propeller. The trouble with wind power is that it's not very reliable, and can't be used anywhere but on extremely flat terrain. Hills, and even trees, can obstruct the wind, which is why the few attempts at wind powered wagons met with failure - they kept getting stuck behind a hill. So wind power was used only where it was extremely flat (the ocean), and where no other form of power could possibly be obtained (also the ocean).
Animal. Beasts of burden - the horse, or the ox. Animal power had a number of attractions. It was plentiful, fuel was easy to get, they tend to be self repairing in the case of minor mishaps, and they can on occasion reproduce. The trouble with animal power is that it doesn't scale up very well. If you need two horsepower to move a wagon down a road, you hitch up two horses and off you go. If you need two hundred horsepower to turn the machinery in a factory, you have a problem. Animal power also only worked on dry land. There are no recorded attempts to domesticate a whale. Succesful ones, anyway.
Water. That leaves the final, and most promising source of pre-steam power: water. More correctly, water running downhill. Find a stream of water, build a water wheel, direct the stream on top, and you have power. Unlike animal power, it can be scaled up - just find a larger stream and build a larger water wheel. Unlike wind power, it was reliable - most streams did not run dry. There was one catch - water running downhill only existed in certain places, usually around hills or mountains. So if you wanted to harness water power, you had to locate in the mountains.
And in the 1500's and 1600's, that's exactly what was happening. Industry was springing up in the mountains, especially in the north of England, where there was plenty of water running downhill. Even that was not without its drawbacks, because this put the factory far from the source of raw materials, and far from the consumer who would buy the finished product. That adds transportation costs, and in the 1600's, the cost of transporting anything was quite high. Transportation was largely animal powered, over rough roads, which meant expensive animals, high maintenance wagons with fragile wood wheels, and people to drive the wagons at the astounding pace of around 5 mph.
To put this into perspective, consider the textile industry. Sheep prefer flat, rolling fields, but the power to run the large looms could be found only in mountain streams. And the people who want to buy the finished product live largely in cities, far from the mountains. So the raw materials had to be transported from the field into the mountains where the factories could get the power they needed, and then transported back out of the mountains down to the cities where they could be sold. It is inefficient transportation like this that kept the cost of a shirt up in what would be today, hundreds of dollars. A faster and more economical form of transportation would get the costs down. A source of power that did not require factories to be located in the mountains would be even more efficient.
Religion plays a role.
Perhaps the primary reason the steam engine was created when and where it was, has to do with a high concentration of intelligent and motivated pre-industrialists that had settled in northern England. Before delving into the events leading up to the creation of steam power, it is wise to review the reason that so many smart and determined people were gathered in the same place. In the post Cromwell period, the newly restored crown demanded loyalty from all to the Anglican church. While the primary target was Roman Catholics, a strict interpretation also included Quakers and non Anglican Protestants. Those that refused were referred to as Dissenters, and had many of their civil rights stripped, including the right to live in any of the larger urban areas, and access to higher education such as Oxford or Cambridge. As a consequence, Dissenters began a migration to the north of England, where the Scottish society was more tolerant of (if not in outright agreement with) the views of the Dissenters. There was also a university open to them in this area, the University of Glasgow, an institute that was to factor heavily in the invention of the steam engine.
One right that was not stripped was the right to engage in commerce and industry, pursuits that were regarded as being 'beneath' the landed gentry that ruled polite English society. And, in fact, it was the Dissenters in and around the area of Birmingham that were to form the core of the industrialists. It is no coincidence that among the Dissenters were most of the people who were to play a key role in early steam power. They were smart, and they had no illusions about wasting their time on social pursuits. Hard work and inspiration were the measures of their success. So while the Anglican gentry were slowly slipping into an intellectual stupor, the Dissenters set about creating the Industrial Revolution. They were to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.
Why the steam engine was invented.
Like most great inventions, no one person was responsible for inventing the steam engine. It was a case of many small inventions being put together until a specific need was met. Then, the inventors found that their creation had far more uses than they ever imagined. And like many great inventions, it came about for reasons that had little to do with its final applications. To trace the origins of the steam engine, we go back to the 1400's. Something strange happened in Europe in that time. It became cold, and stayed cold for over two hundred years. No one knows why this happened. Could be sunspots, could be a change in the jetstream. We just don't know.
Regardless of why it happened, this mini ice age kicked off a round of inventions to deal with the temperature, or lack of as the case may be. Buttons were invented, so that the additional clothing could be donned or removed quickly. The fireplace was invented, so that houses could now be heated. And to deal with the greater amount of time that people spent indoors, glass was made into flat surfaces that could be installed into walls. This allowed sunlight in to add a bit of heat to the indoors, and dispel the generally gloomy atmosphere of a dark room. The mini ice age of the 15th and 16th centuries gave birth to, amongst many other things, the glass window. And in the 1600's, glassmaking was in full bloom.
The rise of the glassmakers.
And so we find ourselves in the start of the seventeenth century, with the ice age receeding, fortunes rising, and a new industry springing up in England - glassmaking. For though the temperature moderated, the desire for airy and well lit houses did not. In order to meet the demand for glass, small factories began to appear in England, where a particularly pure variety of sand could be found, and fuel for the huge furnaces was plentiful, in the form of the forests. The improved furnaces used to heat the glass were also useful for processing various ores into pure metals, chiefly iron and copper.
However, as these operations increased in size, so did their need for fuel. The forests were being cut down at an alarming rate. And that got the attention of the British government, because they needed that wood for something else - their navy. The Royal Navy had just finished routing the Spanish, and were to stop the French twice in coming years. As a result, King James issued a proclamation in 1615, stating that 'no person or persons whatsoever shal melt, make, or cause to be melted any kinde forme, or fashion of Glasse or Glasses whatsoever with Timber or Wood". Now, in those days, disobeying the King meant a quick trip to the Tower of London and an even quicker shave to the neck, so the order was promptly obeyed by all who wished to keep their head on their shoulders. The glassmakers and smelters had to find another source of fuel, and lots of it.
Coal to the rescue.
The emerging industrialists had one thing in their favor. Because glassmaking and smelting had become such a profitable business, considerable financial resources could be brought to bear on the finding of a new source of fuel. And they found it - coal. Along with this new fuel, which burned very hot, a Quaker by the name of Abraham Darby invented a new dome shaped furnace that generated even higher temperatures with less fuel - the reverbrating furnace. And right away, they hit yet another problem. The richest coal deposits existed far underground. Because England is an island, so did water, in great amounts. To put it simply, the coal mines were flooding faster than they could be drained. Several ways of draining the mines were tried. A horse powered lift system was devised, but the problem of scale was encountered - it was not practical to harness animal power on a scale needed to drain the mines and get the best coal. Water power couldn't work - most mines were located on flat land, far from water running downhill. And so here we are in the late 1600's, with mines flooding and fortunes being placed on hold, until the flooding problem could be solved.
This was not a new situation, there had been the need for large scale water pumps in the past. What was different this time were the considerable economic benefits to whomever could solve that problem. As with the loss of wood for fuel, there was a lot of money riding on the mines being kept clear. We now have the presence of the two primary ingredients for invention - a great need, and the possibility of a great profit.
Guericke and the vacuum.
The need was to be solved in a somewhat oblique fashion, for which we need to step back to the early 1600's. It was during that period that a German scientist by the name of Otto von Guericke began experimenting with pressure, or more correctly, the lack of pressure. Guericke had discovered the presence of the third form of matter: gas. To further his experiments, he invented the first air pump. Guericke took the idea for household water pumps, the cylinder and piston, and created it in a form precise enough to have an airtight seal. With this, Guericke could evacutate air from a glass globe and discovering peculiar facts about the vacuum. You could ring a bell in a vacuum and not hear it. Candles went out in it. Small animals died in it. This discovery could have gone any number of ways, but Guericke was also to discover a way to create static electricity, with a spinning ball of sulfur. And so enamored with the newly discovered electric generator (of sorts), Guericke put aside his work with air pumps and vacuums.
Denis Papin becomes curious.
Other people did not. In that peculiar way that one person leaves an idea half finished, and another picks it up and carries on, a French inventor, Denis Papin, picked up on Guericke's piston and cylinder. He thought that if a piston and cylinder could move air, perhaps air could move the piston and cylinder. So Papin set about looking for ways to power a piston. He tried gunpowder, but found it too volatile - the cylinder tended to explode. (had he tried vaporized alcohol, quite common at the time, things might have turned out quite differently) Then, Papin tried an idea he got from beer brewers - heating water produced a great amount of pressure. Perhaps that pressure could be put to use? Papin actually did get a piston to move in a cylinder from steam power, but he only got the first part of the equation right. He heated water in the cylinder, and not with a separate boiler, so he was never able to refine this idea into practical reality. It mattered little, the metallurgy of that day did not provide a method of joining pipes in a manner that would withstand hot steam. Nevertheless, Papin, as befits the gastronomic leanings of his native land, did put his knowledge to one good use - he invented the first pressure cooker.
Enter Thomas Savery.
|A British inventor also was working with steam under
pressure, and encountering the same poor metallurgy and solder joints that
stopped Papin. Thomas Savery did not give up. Instead, he found that if steam
were put into a container and allowed to cool, it would contract, and create a
partial vacuum. Savery put that vacuum to work to suck water out of the mines,
with a device he called The Miner's Friend. Put simply, it was a boiler to
create steam, and an enclosed container with three valves. Close intake and
exhaust valves, open the steam feed valve, and fill the container with steam.
Close steam feed valve, open intake valve, and as the steam cools, it draws
water into the container. Close intake, open exhaust and steam feed lines, and
the water in the container runs out the exhaust. The power of condensing steam
was not a new concept. It was known that boiling water in a sealed container,
venting off the excess pressure, taking away the heat and sealing the container
would create a partial vacuum. Previous attempts to work with condensing steam
had the steam being heated and cooled in the same container. What Savery
contributed to the equation was the separate boiler - now you did not have to
wait for the entire apparatus to cool down, only the final destination of the
Savery designed his pump with two chambers, the idea being that while one chamber was expelling the water, the other chamber could be condensing and pulling in water. This was actually installed in a few mines, but it also had a problem. Using suction alone, water cannot be lifted higher than 32 feet. Beyond that, the weight of the water overcomes air pressure and won't go any higher. The Miner's Friend could pump water. It just couldn't pump enough water to justify it's expense.
Thomas Newcomen and the first practical use of steam power.
At about the same time, a metalworker by the name of Thomas Newcomen, and his partner John Calley, were traveling around various mines doing repair work. Newcomen was aware of Papin's work, and had most likely seen Savery's invention up close. So Newcomen put Savery's idea of condensing steam together with Guericke's cylinder and piston. The final piece of the puzzle was in place - instead of using the suction of condensing steam to pull water, use it to pull a piston, and that can raise water as high as needed, by lifting buckets.
It appeared to be a grand idea, except for the painfully slow speed at which steam condenses - the Newcomen engine was very slow. Until one day Newcomen had an accident. Cylinders of those days were not precisely bored, so the bore of the cylinder was often smoothed out with solder, and on top of the piston was a layer of water to complete the seal. One day, the solder melted on a cylinder patch at the exact moment when they cylinder was at the top of its stroke and full of steam. A jet of cold water sprayed down into the cylinder, condensing the steam instantly, and pulling the piston down with such force that it broke its attaching chain, tore through the bottom of the cylinder, and buried itself in the boiler underneath. As he sorted through the wreckage, Newcomen realized that he had found his solution to the slow engine - introduce a jet of cold water at the top of the piston's stroke, and the engine runs much faster and more efficiently.
The first Newcomen engine went into operation in 1712, near Dudley Castle, and was an instant success. There was the problem of Savery claiming that his patent was infringed, and ultimately Newcomen ended up taking Savery on as a partner to resolve this issue. The next problem to be solved was the cost of the engine - the brass used to make the cylinder was very expensive. Fortunately, right down the road in Coalbrookdale, Abraham Darby was casting iron cylinders for cannon. Darby was contracted to make cylinders for steam engines, and the high cost of the brass cylinders was solved.
Enter James Watt.
Everything was moving along smoothly, until 40 years later, when another accident was to prompt the next great improvement. The accident occurred at the University of Glasgow. A model of the Newcomen engine broke down, and the local college handyman was called in to repair it. In the process of repairing it, the handyman began to realize that it was not a very efficient engine. The cylinder had to be cooled down enough to condense the steam, yet on the next stroke it had to be heated back up to contain a fresh load of steam. This repairman, by the name of James Watt, created a separate condensing vessel, a much smaller container that wouldn't have to be cooled quite so much in order to work the cylinder. In operation, the cylinder was filled with steam, and then a valve was opened to the very cold condensing chamber. The steam entering the chamber condensed and created a partial vacuum, sucking in more steam from the cylinder, which in turn condensed and created even more of a vacuum, until most of the steam had been sucked out of the cylinder, and the cylinder was pulled down as a result of the vacuum. This also had the advantage of operating at a higher speed than the Newcomen engine, it would cycle faster.
Watt was a Dissenter, living near Glasgow as the university was one of the few institutes of higher learning that would accept Dissenters. This area was also blossoming with pre-Industrial Revolution factories and coal mines, most of which were kept dry by a Newcomen engine. Watt built a working model of his improved steam engine in 1767. As the engine tended to wheeze, puff, and blow clouds of smoke, Watt named the engine Beelzebub. Watt faced an immediate problem - he had no money with which to develop the idea. Enter another Dissenter, Joseph Black, a professor at the University of Glasgow. Black had performed extensive experiments with heat transfer and water, specifically with the mechanics of boiling water, at the behest of the Glasgow distillers looking for a more efficient way to distill whiskey. Black was the first person to establish that a great deal more heat was required to boil water than just to raise its temperature, and had thus theorized that a great deal of energy was stored in steam. Watt had conferred with Black on his improved steam engine and Black was to use his connections to introduce Watt to John Roebuck, a Dissenter industrialist looking for a better way to drain his mines. Roebuck funded the development of a prototype Watt engine, but went bankrupt and his share of Watt's patent was purchased by Matthew Boulton, owner of a metalworks factory in Birmingham. Curiously enough, Boulton did not need to empty water out of mines, he needed to pump water into his metal working operation
Boulton and Watt were granted an extension on the original patent, and developed a fully functional atmospheric steam engine that used 1/3 the fuel of the previous Newcomen engine. Boosting the engine's power was the fact that it was now double action, i.e. steam was applied to both sides of the cylinder. The mine operators loved it, anyone who needed water pumped in or out loved it. But the market was about to expand dramatically.
William Murdoch creates circular motion.
At this point, Watt's engine was still capable only of a push/pull operation on a pump, whereas most factories were set up to run on circular motion as generated by water wheels. Watt made a most wise capitalization of his initial wealth, and set up an 'invention shop' quite similar to what Thomas Edison was to establish almost 200 years later, where bright minds were hired to come up with new ideas. One of those bright minds was William Murdoch, who developed a planetary gear system that transformed the reciprocating action of the Watt engine into the circular motion needed by the factories. This was later to be refined into the simple connecting rod and flywheel that is now part of any reciprocating steam engine. Watt was to add one other refinement to his steam engine - the first practical governer, whose design Watt adapted from a windmill speed regulator.
With the advent of circular motion from Murdoch's invention, the steam engine could now do more than pump water. It could turn the machinery in a factory. Within a year of Murdoch being granted a patent on his gearing system, factories began large scale adoption of the Watt engine. No longer just a water pump, the Watt engine had become the motivator of an economic boom that continues today. The Industrial Revolution was under way, powered by steam.
Going mobile - the steam locomotive.
The steam engine was still too large and heavy to be used in anything but a static setting. That was also to be solved, again almost by accident. By the late 1700's steam power in factories had blossomed into the primary motive force, and Watt and his associates were becoming extremely wealthy from the royalties on the separate condensing chamber atmospheric engine. With that much money going to that few people, someone was bound to look for a way to circumvent those payments.
Enter Richard Trevithick
Quite a few did, but one actually succeeded - Richard Trevithick. In order to get rid of the separate condensing chamber that was the basis of Watt's patents, Trevithick did away with the notion of condensing altogether, and began to investigate pressure steam. Metallurgy had improved to the point where pipe joints capable of withstanding pressure and temperature were now possible. His first model was built in 1797. Trevithick referred to this engine as a 'puffer', for the puffing sound it made when running. By 1804, he had built a small locomotive, based on horse drawn railway tracks, and was known for giving rides on the machine he called "Catch me who can". For a short period, this locomotive entered commercial service. Sadly, the iron rails prevalent among horse drawn railways at the time would not support the weight of a steam engine, and Trevithick's locomotive was known for breaking rails and jumping the tracks. The problem, as it turned out was not the locomotive but the tracks. A bit of persistence on Trevithick's part would have paid off handsomely, but he moved on to other ideas and abandoned the locomotive concept. His one and only locomotive lived out it's final days driving a water pump.
Exit Trevithick, enter Hedley and Stephenson.
Around 1809, the Napoleanic wars had placed a heavy demand on fodder for horses, and horses in general, driving the price of both up. Consequently, the idea of a steam powered coal hauler began to look more economically viable. This was the motive behind the order to John Blenkinsop, the manager of the Middleton Collierly (coal dump), to go out and get a coal fired locomotive built for testing. Blenkinsop contracted with Matthew Murray, a leading builder of steam engines, to build the prototype. To increase traction, and to avoid the ponderous weight that had caused Trevithick's locomotive to destroy the tracks, Blenkinsop fitted a cog drive system, where a gear fit into teeth mounted on the rails, for traction. The fact that Blenkinsop himself held the patent on the cog drive system, and would be receiving royalties for its use, may have influenced his thinking. In any case, the locomotive produced was a success, and remained in service for over twenty hears.
In 1814, Christopher Blackett, another manager in the coal business, was instructed to set up another pilot program for a locomotive. Blackett contacted Trevithick, but Trevithick was too busy with other matters to get involved. So Blackett instead contracted with William Hedley, another manager in the coal business, to get the job done. Hedley discarded the cog system used by Blenkinsop, after experiments revealed that simple friction was enough to get the train moving. Hedley eventually produced a locomotive that could haul loaded coal at 4 to 8 mph. This locomotive, called Puffing Billy, is considered to be the first practical harnessing of steam power on rails. Puffing Billy survived numerous modifications, and now resides in London on permanent display.
Stephenson takes the lead.
Another person interested in locomotive design was George Stephenson. His first effort, Blucher, was built in 1814, but was not considered a success. After a year's trials, it was found to be as expensive as horses to operate. Without any economic incentive, the mining operations were not going to adopt new machinery when the old horses were delivering acceptable service.
While looking for ways to increase Blucher's efficiency, Stephenson noted that the steam exiting the cylinders left with a considerable blast. In a moment of brilliant inspiration, he redirected the exhaust from the cylinders into the boiler's smokestack, so that each blast of steam exiting the cylinders created a draught in the firebox. With forced air, the coal burned much hotter, giving greater heat generation in a small boiler design. More power, less weight, means greater efficiency. Thus equipped, the new Stephenson locomotives went into service, hauling coal and ore from the British mines at Killingworth.
Stephenson did not leave well enough alone. Painfully aware of the inadequacies of stock iron rails, he joined with William Losh, who owned an iron foundry in Newcastle. Together, they developed a harder cast iron rail that could support the heavier locomotives. Stephenson also did the first serious analysis on railway grades. He found that ten pounds of force could move a ton of weight on level ground, but the force requirement went up 50% if the grade increased to as little as 1 in 200. From this, he concluded that railways must be as level as possible, and put this into practice when laying out the Stockton & Darlington line in 1821.
When a much longer tramway was planned between Liverpool and Manchester, the idea of steam locomotives was not considered so novel. Popular opinion held out for stationary steam engines pulling carts for this new tram, but Stephenson argued long and hard for locomotives. In 1829, the directors of the tramway decided to offer a prize to the fastest locomotive, one thousand pounds, to the fastest locomotive on this track. For this contest, Stephenson rolled out his finest design to date - forced air firebox, and twenty three firetubes in the boiler. Of the four locomotives, only Stephenson's entry - the Rocket - finished, and did so with an average speed of fifteen MPH. With this convincing demonstration of both speed and reliability, the age of steam transportation had begun. Later, Stephenson's forced air design was refined by Goldsworthy Gurney with a proper steam jet, boosting the Rocket's top speed to 29 mph.
With the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester line, reliable and rapid passenger service was instituted, at speeds far greater than ever seen with horse drawn trams. The age of steam locomotives had arrived.
Just as with Watt, Stephenson did not invent the locomotive. What he did was to take an existing design, refine it to make it more efficient, refine the rails over which it was to travel, and get the funding to put it into service where it easily proved it's worth.
Weigh anchor - the steam powered ship.
It is curious that the steam engine should evolve in Britain, a seafaring nation, while the steam engine's evolution on ships would occur first in the United States. Perhaps it was Britain's naval prowess that caused this: when you are the recognized leader, you tend to stick with a successful formula. Nonetheless, if any form of transportation could benefit from manmade power, it would be ships. While the lateen sail had gone a long way towards allowing ships to move, regardless of what direction the wind came from, wind was still needed to move the ships. As the direction and intensity of the winds were (and still are) somewhat unpredictable, so was the schedule of sailing ships. Voyage times could be quite variable, and if the wind died down altogether, the ship was left motionless. This meant that factories dependent upon foreign supplies had to factor in variable length voyages in their schedules. Those factories could operate at far greater levels of efficiency if the schedule were more predictable. Once again, we have a situation begging for a solution, and promising great wealth to whomever solved it.
William Henry's early start.
It was around 1760 that William Henry, a gunsmith from the gunmaking region of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was visiting England and first saw a Newcomen engine in action. Upon returning home, he built a small replica and installed it in a ship, along with a series of paddles for it to work. The result was not a success, and the boat later sank, but Henry never lost his interest in steam power.
John Fitch takes up the challenge.
A frequent visitor to Henry's home was John Fitch, who decided to tackle the problem himself. Fitch built a copy of the more powerful Watt engine, connected it to an arrangement of individual oars, and launched the resulting creation in 1787. While the boat did run reliably, it could not achieve a speed greater than about four knots, which hardly impressed the public. The complex paddle arrangement was also very maintenance intensive - it broke down a lot. Undaunted, Fitch built a larger boat, but the speed was no higher. Not one to give up, Fitch then built a 60 foot long boat that did achieve the astounding speed of six knots. This boat ran regular trips between Philadelphia and Trenton, N.J for an entire summer. Alas, the boat cost more to operate than the fares generated. Fitch retired to a farm in Kentucky, never losing his faith in the idea of steam power.
John Stevens gets interested.
Fitch was not entirely unsuccessful, though. John Stevens happened to see Fitch's boat puffing between Philadelphia and Trenton, and was so fascinated that he followed the boat to its next stop and had a look. Stevens joined with a partner to provide financial and business assistance - Robert Livingston. A statesman of some note, Livingston served on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, and later was appointed by Thomas Jefferson to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase with France. Stevens spent ten years working on various designs. Early efforts that were launched around 1798 met with the same result as Fitch's boat - too slow to be practical. Later efforts showed great improvement with the introduction of a new form of moving water - the screw propeller. Stevens gave up on the idea, but Livingston was to later play a signifigant role with another inventor.
William Symington barges in.
Over in England, they were not asleep. Lord Dundas funded William Symington to build a steam powered barge, in hopes of taking the place of canal boat horses. His first effort, the Charlotte Dundas, was finished in 1802, using a stern paddle wheel and an engine from Boulton and Watt. It was an immediate success, hauling two seventy ton barges against a headwind, for twenty miles in six hours. Canal operators were wary of this loud, evil smelling machine, and feared damage to the banks of their canals, but Dundas persevered, and was quite close to persuading the Duke of Bridgewater to fund an order for eight steam powered barges. It is quite possible that Symington and Dundas would be remembered as the inventors of the steam boat, but then Dundas died, and sadly, the idea died with him. The Charlotte Dundas was anchored in a side creek to rot, and Symington gave the idea up.
Enter Robert Fulton
Despite the numerous attempts, no one had managed to find the optimal combination of steam design, and propulsion design, that would yield a steam powered boat that was practical and economical to operate. However, the benefits of a steam powered boat were as large as the potential profits, so inventors kept working. The next bright mind to come on the scene was Robert Fulton. Like Fitch and Henry, Fulton was raised in Lancaster, Pa, an area that hosted the finest gunmakers in the US, and consequently was rich in metalworking and mechanical knowledge. Fulton had an early interest in becoming an artist, as his parents were good friends with a renowned American artist, Benjamin West. Someone else was also good friends with West, and owned several of his paintings - William Henry. Fulton visited Henry's home on many occasions to observe the paintings, and while there is no record of the event, it seems almost certain that Henry also spoke of the steam powered boat. Fulton also showed a remarkable mechanical aptitude at an early age. Becoming fed up with the charcoal based pencils, Fulton created on made of very soft lead. Not nearly as messy, it became an instant success. (this being long before the dangers of lead exposure were known)
Fulton made the acquaintance of one Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, who urged him to go to London to study art if he wished to pursue that as a vocation. In 1787, Fulton did just that, sailing to England to pursue a career in art. While studying, Fulton had in his words - "now been crushed by poverty's cold wind and freezing rain", otherwise known as being broke. So he began to paint on commission as a way to keep himself supported. One person who particularly liked young Fulton's style was Lord Courtney, who called Fulton back to paint several portraits. Courtney was to introduce Fulton to the Duke of Bridgewater - the same person that Lord Dundas had nearly persuaded to invest in several steam powered barges. And, yes, Bridgewater talked to Fulton about steam powered boats. At great length, it would appear, as Fulton decided to give up his career as an artist and become an engineer. Keep in mind that engineer, in those days, did not mean what it means today. It meant, as the word suggests, a person who works with engines. Fulton moved to Birmingham, where he became familiar with the Watt engine, and invented a machine for spinning hemp rope. He also created a human powered diving boat, or submarine, fifty years before the Hunley was to show how deadly the concept of underwater attack could be. Unlike most early submarine inventors, Fulton survived the experience, though there was no interest in governments, so the design was not pursued.
Fulton wrote, in 1802, that he was beginning to "experiment with a view to discover the principles on which boats or vessels should be propelled through the water by the power of steam engines". Quite familiar with the work of Fitch, Stevens, and Symington, and having firsthand knowledge of William Henry's efforts, Fulton set about discovering the best method of transferring power with a small clockwork model. He tried several arrangements, including one that closely resembled a duck's webbed feet, but finally settled on the paddle wheel as being the most suitable method. As well it should be, it had been in use for centuries in water mills. Fulton's methodical approach showed that the surface areas of the paddles should be twice the exposed surface of the bow. At this time, Fulton was living in France, where he happened to meet the US minister to France - Robert Livingston. Yes, the same Robert Livingston who had partnered with John Stevens on his steam boat.
Fulton's life seems to be one of brilliance and remarkable good fortune in meeting the right person at the right time.
Livingston, no fool, saw not only the logic of Fulton's research, but the necessity in protecting it before it became popular. So he obtained the exclusive rights to operate steam powered boats in New York state for twenty years. In 1803, no one thought that this was a matter that was likely to bear fruit any time soon, so it was not regarded as important. Fulton built his first steam powered launch, seventy feet long, eight feet wide, with twelve foot diameter wheels, powered by a Boulton-Watt engine, in France. Shortly before its maiden voyage, a violent storm arose, and the boat broke in half. The boat was rebuilt, and while its top speed was around five knots, it proved to be a reliable and controllable vessel. Fulton and Livingston then began to plot an even larger boat, to address what was their final target - regular service between New York City and Albany, on the Hudson river.
Fulton ordered from Boulton and Watt, a twenty four horsepower steam plant. There was some delay in getting the engine, as the British government feared that it was to be used for a torpedo boat for the French - the Napoleanic wars were in full force at the time, and Fulton and Livingston had been working in France, so this was not an entirely unfounded fear. After some delay, the order was accepted, and Fulton, aware of the importance of the plant, went to Birmingham to observe its construction. In 1806, Fulton and the steam plant arrived in New York, whereupon he engaged a shipbuilder on the East River to build a hull 150 feet long. Locally, this was referred to as "Fulton's folly", and some hostility arose among the local sailors - they would occasionally bump into the boat as they passed by, necessitating the hiring of guards.
The idea, though, was regarded as impractical. Livingston even tried to bring in his old partner, John Stevens. Stevens refused, saying "Mr. Fulton's plan can never succeed". When a final round of financing was needed, Fulton obtained it only by keeping the investor's names secret, so that they would not be ridiculed for throwing their money away. The Clermont was completed in 1807, and despite an initial breakdown of its steam plant, steamed off towards Albany. On its initial voyage, the Clermont covered the 150 miles between New York and Albany in thirty two hours, and Fulton had the pleasure of passing many sailboats that were tacking back and forth against the prevailing headwind. The return voyage took thirty hours. Shortly after, the Clermont was equipped with berths, and began running regular service between New York and Albany. The fare for the trip was the same as that of sailboats - three dollars - but the trip took on the average thirty six hours instead of the forty eight to fifty of the sailboats. And the Clermont was not affected by shifts in the wind, so it provided a more reliable service. It was soon packed on every voyage.
During the following winter, the Clermont was made larger, and renamed the North River. Fulton was inundated with requests, and in the next eight years, ten steam powered boats of his design appeared on the Hudson, Long Island Sound, and the Potomac. Fulton also built ferry boats to cross the Hudson and East Rivers. Not one to be left out after success was so obvious, John Stevens copied Fulton's ideas and began making his own steam boats.
There was one final horizon that Fulton wished to conquer - crossing the Atlantic ocean on steam power. And this was to be achieved, but he would not see it happen. Fulton died in 1815, four years before the Savannah crossed the Atlantic.
An interesting bit of naval lore began with the early transatlantic steamships. Due to the enormous size of their side paddle wheels, and the need to move quickly between the two for service, a bridge was built across the top of the wheels so that mechanics could move quickly between the wheels without having to climb twenty feet down and twenty feet back up. On later vessels, this was considered an ideal location from which to conn the ship, due to the commanding view one had from being so high up. Before long, the bridge between the paddle wheels became the standard location for the ship's wheel, and was later enclosed with windows to become the command center for the ship. Later, after paddle wheels had given way to screw propellers, the term stuck. To this day, the location from which a ship is commanded is called 'the bridge', in reference to the actual bridge built for rapid access to the paddle wheels.
Who invented the steam engine?
As we can see, the steam engine was not invented by one single person. It certainly was not invented by James Watt, he merely refined the idea into a practical machine. George Stephenson did not invent the locomotive, he refined an existing design, and refined the design of the track to where the locomotive was now practical. Robert Fulton did not invent the steam powered ship, he was the first to build a practical and profitable ship. History is littered with people like Denis Papin or Richard Trevithick, creators of a brilliant idea, but without the practical sense or business acumen to actually sell the concept to the general public. There is a lesson here - an invention is not truly an invention, until it has brought meaningful benefits to a large number of people.
Steam power was actually applied in two stages to industry - first to power the factories, and then to power the transportation devices, as lightweight high pressure steam engines were invented. In the end, it took a combination of both types of steam power to bring the Industrial Revolution to life. A mechanized factory cannot be truly efficient if delivery of its raw goods are governed by the vagrancies of the weather. The produced goods cannot be sold at an attractive price if the cost of transportation to market is too high.
The history of steam power, like the history of invention in general, is one of unlikely necessity, and inspiration building upon inspiration. Like invention in general, the people most remembered are not the original theorists, but the pragmatic individuals who made the idea into a practical benefit for the greatest number of people.
Was the steam engine responsible for the Industrial Revolution?
Not really - no one individual factor was responsible. Steam power was critical, without it the Industrial Revolution would not have happened. But that period in commerce also relied upon the machines needing to be driven, the raw materials for the factories, a transportation network to service the factories, a financial network to fund the building and operation of the factories, and most of all, the inspired individuals who drove the entire process forward.
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