Steam Power: History & Overview

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore steam power. Though rarely in use today, steam power evolved prior to the Industrial Revolution and facilitated much of the movement of people and goods in the nineteenth century.

Gradual Development

History is much easier when we can attach great movements or achievements with single men, such as the light bulb with Thomas Edison or Abraham Lincoln with the abolition of slavery. As easy as these associations are to remember, they rarely tell the entire story behind an important innovation.

Steam power is one of these innovations whose story is greater than a single man or longer than a single lifetime. Steam power developed slowly, over hundreds of years and dozens of incremental improvements before steam power evolved to become the important force it was during the Industrial Revolution and the nineteenth century.

Early Pioneers

Though forms of steam power were pioneered as early as the first century A.D. by Greek scientists, these forms were demonstrative and were never meant for practical or commercial use. It was not until the Renaissance in Europe that steam power began to be used for practical purposes. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, European philosophers and early scientists began experimenting with steam power, often to generate power to pump water.

Rudimentary steam vacuums and pumps became increasingly commonplace in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and the first commercially successful, mass-produced utilization of steam power was unveiled in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen. Newcomen's atmospheric engine heated water to produce steam which powered a piston which pumped water out of mines.

Newcomen's steam-powered pump was used throughout Britain and Europe well into the nineteenth century. In addition, other inventors continued to improve on Newcomen's design, the most notable being made in the 1760s by James Watt. Watt made Newcomen's pump much more efficient by adding a separate condenser. The addition allowed the new and improved steam pump to do more work while burning roughly half the coal as before.

Steam-Powered Vehicles

As steam power grew in popularity, people began attempting to use the engines to propel vehicles in both sea and land. An integral innovation in this process was made by William Murdoch in the 1780s. Prior to Murdoch's research, steam was only used to power pistons up and down. Murdoch devised a method that used steam engine to power reciprocal, circular motion.

With Murdoch's innovation, steam engines could be used to turn wheels. The first proper usage of this ability came in a steam-powered train, created and used in southern Wales in 1804 by Richard Trevithick. By the 1830s, most of northern England's freight and passenger trains ran on steam. Steam-powered engines grew in popularity throughout the nineteenth century in America as well, and it was steam engine trains at Promontory Summit in Utah which first traveled the transcontinental railroad completed in 1869.

The nineteenth century saw steam-powered boats revolutionize sea travel. In 1807, Robert Fulton instituted North America's first steam-powered passenger service aboard his steamboat, the Clermont. From then on, people and goods could be transported at any time whereas before ocean travel was heavily dependent on winds and the seasons. Men like Cornelius Vanderbilt made fortunes in the nineteenth century transporting people and goods around the world.

Implications and Steam Power Today

Steam power and its applications in transportation and commerce during the Industrial Revolution had profound effects on the western world. Without the increased mobility offered by steam travel, mass migrations like that caused by the 1849 Gold Rush may never have occurred. Similarly, advances in steam power and steam locomotion allowed the vast quantities of goods being produced by the factories and workshops of the Industrial Revolution to be sold in markets that would have been hitherto unreachable.

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