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Kids love steam en­gines. Guest writer Richard El­lam was crazy about them as a child and his fas­ci­na­tion in­tro­duced him to Thomas New­comen. Richard dis­cov­ers how this mys­te­ri­ous man’s life can ac­tu­ally tell us a thing or two about how to suc­ceed in life.

I’m just old enough to be a child of the steam age. One of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries was watch­ing steam trains run on the nearby rail­way. I was about three or four, and ev­ery Fri­day my mother dragged me to the lo­cal su­per­mar­ket for the weekly shop. From here, I could watch th­ese mag­nif­i­cent ma­chines snort their way at the head of a long rake of dirty black coal wag­ons. The im­pres­sion it left has stayed with me and prob­a­bly ex­plains why en­gi­neer­ing has al­ways been an im­por­tant part of my life. As I grew older I learnt that steam trains weren’t the be­gin­ning: be­fore them came sta­tion­ary steam en­gines. In­vented by a man more in­flu­en­tial even than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, he is some­one you’ve prob­a­bly never heard of. In 1712, Thomas New­comen was to change the world for­ever. My fas­ci­na­tion has taught me much about steam en­gines. The sta­tion­ary engine was the first of a fam­ily of ma­chines that engi­neers called heat en­gines. This fam­ily in­cludes petrol en­gines, diesel en­gines, and jet en­gines – the tech­nol­ogy now in­trin­sic to our ev­ery­day ex­is­tence. Heat en­gines are so-called be­cause they take heat en­ergy from burn­ing fuel and con­vert it into me­chan­i­cal power. With this power we can gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity, pump wa­ter, and drive to the shops. Our mod­ern age is the age of the heat engine. So it’s a great irony that the man who started it all never re­ceived recog­ni­tion. In a world where so many are clam­or­ing for fame and celebrity sta­tus, there is much we can learn from his life.

Tips for a world-chang­ing in­ven­tor 1: Be hum­ble

New­comen was hum­ble both in his na­ture and in­ten­tions: he sought only to help min­ers, by find­ing an ef­fec­tive way to pump wa­ter out of mines. He would have been as­tounded – hor­ri­fied even – by what his in­ven­tion was to be­come. He lived all his life in Dart­mouth, a small town in Devon, UK. He died, and was buried in Lon­don, on a busi­ness trip in 1729. His grave is now lost. For such an im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal fig­ure we know frus­trat­ingly lit­tle about him: he left no di­aries, no one wrote a bi­og­ra­phy, and there are no paint­ings of him. We do know that his driv­ing force was not steam power, but his re­li­gious faith. In his life he was bet­ter known as a preacher, and had a national rep­u­ta­tion in the Bap­tist com­mu­nity as an in­spi­ra­tional speaker. I imag­ine him be­ing a charis­matic man, al­though pos­si­bly rather se­vere in his opin­ions for mod­ern tastes. Be­cause no por­trait sur­vives, we have no idea what New­comen ac­tu­ally looked like. Prob­a­bly none was ever made; he would have con­sid­ered it a great van­ity, and an in­dul­gent ex­pense. Whether tall or short, fat or thin, New­comen would have been plainly, but not shab­bily, dressed – in keep­ing with his po­si­tion as a pros­per­ous trades­man (his re­li­gious scru­ples would for­bid bright colours!) He made his money in me­tal, sell­ing iron, iron goods and other met­als in great quan­tity across South West Eng­land. He also ran an iron­mon­ger’s shop – the equiv­a­lent of a mod­ern hard­ware store – and had the skills of a black­smith. A multi-skilled, charm­ing man, it is per­haps when he was sell­ing nails and hinges that he met his most im­por­tant cus­tomers – the lo­cal me­tal min­ers.

2: Spot the op­por­tu­nity

Through th­ese busi­ness con­tacts, he be­came aware of the prob­lems that min­ers faced in clear­ing wa­ter from their work­ings as they delved ever-deeper into the Earth for tin,

cop­per and lead. He may well have also learned from his cus­tomers about re­cent at­tempts to make a steam-pow­ered pump to over­come the prob­lem, and about how this had turned out to be an em­bar­rass­ing fail­ure for its in­ven­tor, a cer­tain Thomas Savary. Savary’s steam pump was a kind of su­per­sized espresso ma­chine that sought to force wa­ter out of a mine by the sheer force of steam pres­sure. It de­manded stronger boil­ers and bet­ter pipes than could be made three cen­turies ago so it never came to any­thing. But New­comen, who had a surer grasp of what was pos­si­ble, chose to use steam in an al­to­gether more sub­tle and round­about way. The steam in his engine was barely greater than at­mo­spheric pres­sure, and cer­tainly no stronger than the breath of a strong man. New­comen’s cre­ation made use of some clever physics. It worked by let­ting steam be cooled and con­densed, cre­at­ing low pres­sure within a me­tal cylin­der. Air pres­sure then drove a pis­ton down into this par­tial vac­uum. The pis­ton, in turn, was con­nected by a great rock­ing beam to the mine pumps; the move­ment of the pis­ton then pow­ered th­ese pumps.

3: Don’t give up (and have use­ful friends)

There was cer­tainly no ‘ Eureka!’ mo­ment for New­comen: get­ting his idea to work took at least ten years of hard work. But by 1712 New­comen had fi­nally cracked it, and had a work­ing pro­to­type. Heav­ing it 150 miles to a mine in the mid­dle of Eng­land (a week’s jour­ney on horse­back), the steam engine was given its first trial. The mine he chose, near Dud­ley Cas­tle out­side Wolver­hamp­ton, was no ac­ci­dent. The pur­chaser, Wil­liam Bache, just so hap­pened to be a fel­low Bap­tist. It cer­tainly helps to have friends in high places. But Bache would be mak­ing an ex­pen­sive plunge into the dark, friend or not: the pump prob­a­bly cost about £250,000 ($390,000) in mod­ern money. By the time New­comen died, there were about 75 en­gines in Bri­tain, and they were also at work in Swe­den and France. The heat engine had be­gun its slow rise to ubiq­uity and in­dis­pens­abil­ity, though it would re­quire the work of many engi­neers, of the cal­i­bre of James Watt,

Richard Trevethick, Charles Par­sons and Ru­dolf Diesel, to de­velop its mod­ern forms. The names of other engi­neers may be more fa­mil­iar – but ev­ery heat engine on the planet to­day owes some­thing to that sim­ple mine pump, and one for­got­ten name. His name may not live on, but his legacy cer­tainly does.


LEFT The only New­comen engine still on its orig­i­nal site at Else­car in York­shire. It ran from 1795 un­til


The steam was gen­er­ated in the boiler A. The pis­ton P moved in a cylin­der B. When the valve V was opened, the steam pushed up the pis­ton. At the top of the stroke, the valve was closed, the valve V’ was opened, and a jet of cold wa­ter from the tank C was in­jected into the cylin­der, thus con­dens­ing the steam and re­duc­ing the pres­sure un­der the pis­ton. The at­mo­spheric pres­sure above then pushed the pis­ton down again.

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