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.

Ironmonger

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.

Inventor

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.

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