100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Steam Engine
Year of Invention: 1798

What Is It? An engine that creates mechanical power by boiling water to cre-
ate steam.

Who Invented It? James Watt (in Birmingham, England)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Steam powered the Industrial Revolution. Steam powered England into world economic dominance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and provided the energy to run industry, pumps, trains, and ships for 150 years. The Industrial Revolution, powered by steam, built on blast furnace iron and steel, radically changed the direction of human evolution. Without steam, it couldn’t have happened.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

The idea of the steam engine goes as far back as A.D. 200. Hero of Alexandria observed that expanding water vapor could provide energy to make objects move or turn. But no one could imagine anything practical to do with it, and the idea was dropped for 1,500 years.

European coal mines had the nasty habit of flooding. Miners were desperate for pumps that could keep their mines dry. Several Englishmen invented steam engines to power mine pumps. Most barely produced enough energy to run themselves, much less pump water. In 1712, Thomas Newcomen invented the best of this generation of steam pumps, but even this engine was temperamental and notoriously weak.


How Was the Steam Engine Invented?

In 1792, English engineer and businessman Mathew Boulton hired 35-year-old Scottish engineer James Watt to create a new (and better) steam engine.

Steam was created in a boiler and escaped through a nozzle into the bottom of a large cylinder. There, increasing steam pressure drove a piston up. The piston rod connected to one end of an overhead rocker arm. Pushing the rocker arm up and down operated a pump, which was the point of the engine.

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