THREE TIPS FOR SUCCESS
FROM THE GREATEST MAN THE WORLD HAS NEVER HEARD OF
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.