Thomas Newcomen: Biography, Inventions & the Steam Engine

Instructor: Eve Levinson

Eve has taught various courses of high school history and has a master's degree in education.

Thomas Newcomen was a British inventor & engineer who was inspired by his work with a tin mine to invent the steam engine that ultimately helped to industrialize England.


Thomas Newcomen was born in Darthmouth, Devon, England in 1664 and ultimately got involved in the iron industry. In his role, he traveled to mines across England to obtain metal ore and process it at refineries. Ore is the natural state in which metals like iron, tin, and even gold are found in the earth. For hundreds of years, people have dug mines into lodes, or high concentrations of the ore. But the metal is not useful until is it smelted, or processed through heating to a molten state, which removes impurities and strengthens the material.

Smelting Metal
Smelting Metal

In the 17th century, tinplate had become an increasingly popular metal for use in vessels as it helped prevent rust. Thin sheets of iron were coated with tin, which oxidizes differently from iron. The process helped containers and what was within them last longer. But as tinplate was more popular, mines had to dig deeper, leading to increased flooding. When Thomas Newcomen, visited the tin mines as an ironmonger, a dealer in iron goods, he noticed the inefficiencies in the mines' ability to remove water.


Thomas Newcomen had watched tin miners use horses to carry water from the flooded mines to the surface. Their ability to pull ropes bearing buckets was limited and expensive, which raised the cost of the tin. He knew there was an alternative.

A Mule Pulling Coal
A Mule Pulling Coal

For 10 years, Newcomen worked with John Calley, a plumber, to design a steam pump that would improve on a vacuum pump already designed by Thomas Savery. Newcomen instead constructed a vacuum within a cylinder by offsetting the pressure generated by steam in a separate shaft. In this way, they could draw more water up using a piston.

What set Newcomen's invention apart was his construction of the piston. It was too difficult to construct the round cylinders and round pistons to fit perfectly and create a seal to transport the water. Instead, Newcomen invented what is now known as a piston ring by purposely making the piston smaller and filling the gap with leather or rope. The new design was a remarkable improvement, but still fell within the patent, or government license to the rights of the invention, obtained by Thomas Savery. The two men were forced into a partnership.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account