History

Who invented the first steam engine

By Matt Williamson
Info Guru, Catalogs.com

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red fly wheel on a steam engine
Contrary to popular belief, James Watt was not the original inventor of the first steam engine, but he was instrumental in its development
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There was not just a single inventor involved in the creation of the first steam engine.

Because iron was the key metal of the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine was perhaps the most important machine technology. Inventions and improvements in the use of steam for power began prior to the 18th century, as with iron. As early as 1689, English engineer Thomas Savery created a steam engine to pump water from mines. Thomas Newcomen, another English engineer, developed an improved version by 1712. Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer James Watt made the most significant improvements, allowing the steam engine to be used in many industrial settings, not just in mining. The misconception that Watt was the actual inventor of the steam engine arose from the fundamental nature of his contributions to its development. Early mills had run successfully with water power, but the advancement of using the steam engine meant that a factory could be located anywhere, not just close to water.

Watt was born on January 19, 1736, in Greenock, Scotland. He worked as a mathematical-instrument maker from the age of 19 and soon became interested in improving the steam engines, invented by the English engineers Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen, which were used at the time to pump water from mines. (They were probably weren't the ones who invented the first steam engine, either - no one knows who actually made the first working model.)

Watt determined the properties of steam, especially the relation of its density to its temperature and pressure, and designed a separate condensing chamber for the steam engine that prevented enormous losses of steam in the cylinder and enhanced the vacuum conditions. Watt's first patent, in 1769, covered this device and other improvements on Newcomen's engine, such as steam-jacketing, oil lubrication, and insulation of the cylinder in order to maintain the high temperatures necessary for maximum efficiency.

At this time, Watt was the partner of the British inventor John Roebuck, who had financed his researches. In 1775, however, Roebuck's interest was taken over by British manufacturer Matthew Boulton, owner of the Soho Engineering Works at Birmingham, and he and Watt began the manufacture of steam engines. Watt continued his research and patented several other important inventions, including the rotary engine for driving various types of machinery; the double-action engine, in which steam is admitted alternately into both ends of the cylinder; and the steam indicator, which records the steam pressure in the engine. He retired from the firm in 1800 and thereafter devoted himself entirely to research work.

The centrifugal or flyball governor, which he invented in 1788, and which automatically regulated the speed of an engine, is of particular interest today. It embodies the feedback principle of a servomechanism, linking output to input, which is the basic concept of automation. A common unit of measurement of electrical and mechanical power, the watt, was named in his honor. Watt was also a renowned civil engineer, making several surveys of canal routes. He invented, in 1767, an attachment that adapted telescopes for use in measurement of distances. Watt died in Heathfield, England, on August 19, 1819.

Now you know who invented the first steam engine and although James Watt is credited, he actually improved other peoples' inventions, such as those of Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen, the true inventors of the first steam engine.

If you found this article to be educational, be sure to check out some of our other informational articles.

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