Invention of the steam engine (1712)

Invention of the steam engine (1712)

The invention of steam machineis the story of a long process of discovery that began in antiquity. Although not at the origin, it made a significant contribution to the industrial revolution of the 19th century. It was in 1679 that the French Denis Papin designs a kind of Pressure cooker to study gas pressure. In 1712,Thomas newcomen in 1712 the first to build a steam engine, which was used to pump water from the coal mine of Dudley, in England.

Using steam to generate mechanical energy

The principle of the steam engine is the transformation of the heat energy of the steam into mechanical energy, by expansion and cooling of the steam in a cylinder equipped with a mobile piston. The steam necessary for the production of energy or heat is generally supplied by a boiler. The simplest boilers consist of a vessel containing water, which is heated so as to obtain saturated steam.

Conventional domestic heating systems generally have a boiler of this type, but steam power plants, used for industrial energy production, have a more complex design and auxiliary equipment. The efficiency of a steam engine is often low, and for this reason, steam engines have often been replaced by steam turbines.

The invention of the steam engine ...

The first research on steam dates back to antiquity. Heron of Alexandria develops a rudimentary steam turbine (the eolipyle). The work of Torricelli and Guericke in the seventeenth century focused on the possibility of condensing steam. The first piston engine was developed in 1690 by the French physicist Denis Papin, and was used for pumping water. Papin's machine, more than a curiosity, is a basic machine operating under atmospheric pressure, the steam not being compressed.

Very quickly, the English mechanic Thomas Savery improved this machine to make it useful to the mining industry. Savery's machine was also used for pumping water. The same was true for the naturally aspirated engine designed at the beginning of the 18th century by the English inventor Thomas Newcomen. This device consists of a vertical cylinder and a counterweight piston.

... contributes to the industrial revolution

The main constraint of the steam engine lies in the metallurgical techniques necessary for its practical realization and to achieve a reliable and economically viable result. It was while seeking to make improvements to Newcomen's machine that the Scottish engineer James Watt made a series of inventions that led to the creation of the modern steam engine. Watt was at the origin of another great innovation: the use of pressurized steam. It is now the steam which pushes the piston alternately in one direction then the other.

As Watt's patents fell into the public domain, many manufacturers improved performance and manufacturing. Steam engines gradually established themselves in the 19th century, considerably increasing the production of manufactured products and their transport. Steamers and steam locomotive travel the world, accompanying the industrial revolution. The electric motor will overcome the steam, the use of which will become marginal, as in nuclear power plants.


- History of the Steam Engine, by Robert Henry Thurston. Decoopman, 2014.

- The fabulous history of inventions - From mastery of fire to immortality. Dunod, 2018.

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