On my travels across Devon gathering photographic content for Devonshire…
In 1921 a memorial was erected in Dartmouth to commemorate the town’s most famous son: local ironmonger, Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729) was the first to devise a method to pump water by the use of steam at a time when horses, or wind and water wheels, were the only sources of power. He has been described as the “modern world’s first great mechanical engineer.” From the initial “Fire Engine” in 1712, his invention saved many a mine from flooding and soon provided power for growing industries across Europe, Russia and the Americas. The machines could work 24 hours a day, pumping 120 gallons of water a minute, which meant much deeper mines could be dug and drained: as many were coal mines, the heavy consumption of fuel was no problem.
Newcomen’s invention was an “atmospheric engine”, being driven by pressure of air: the steam was only used as an agent for producing a vacuum. Dartmouth’s Tourist Information Office’s amazing exhibit is allegedly the oldest preserved Steam Engine in the world, dating from around 1720.
Newcomen’s machine looked something like a gigantic balance: at one end hung a heavy pump rod and at the other was the piston, which worked vertically in a cylinder full of steam. Cold water injected into the cylinder condensed the steam to form the necessary vacuum. Under the cylinder was a boiler where the various cocks were originally opened and closed by a boy, although an early modification soon enabled the engines to become self-acting. The engine was cheap to install and run, producing up to 5½ horse power which was better than any of the alternative power sources available at the time.
Newcomen himself was born and baptised in Dartmouth. He does not seem to have made a great fortune from his invention, having been forced to go into business with Thomas Savery, who had existing patents for a similar but less efficient mechanism. However, such was his eventual fame that when subscriptions were sought for his memorial, one of the first to come forward was the then Prince of Wales.
The fire grate where he first saw steam rising from a kettle, leading him to conceive the notion of using it to work a piston to create the “engine that changed the world”, was salvaged when his house was demolished in Victorian times. Alas, its whereabouts are now unknown.
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