The Invention of the Steam Engine

It's common knowledge that modern civilization was forged in the factories of the industrial revolution. And these factories themselves were powered by the steam engine.

Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that steam engines ushered in the modern age. But where did the steam engine come from? Who was the inventor of this "mover of mountains?"

The steam engine was not so much invented as developed. To give credit to any one person would be to steal credit away from its many rightful owners. The steam engine was developed over a period of about a hundred years by three British inventors.

The first crude steam powered machine was built by Thomas Savery, of England, in 1698. Savery built his machine to help pump water out of coal mines. This machine was so simple that it had no moving parts. It also used up lots and lots of coal just to pump a small quantity of water.

To say it was a steam engine would be to stretch the world "engine" far beyond its current meaning. However, it would be fair to say tha Savery was the first person to find a practical way of using steam to perform useful work.

The next stage in the history of the steam engine was a result of the work of Thomas Newcomen, also of England. Newcomen knew that there must be a way of improvingon Savery's inefficient steam powered pump. Newcomen built a machine where the steam actually pushed a movable piston in one direction. This true "steam engine" was also used to pump water out of coal mines. Neither Savery nor Newcomen had any grander purpose in mind for their machines.

This all changed in 1763, when James Watt, a Scottish engineer, set out to improve upon Newcomen's design. Watt figured out a way to push a piston back and forth in its cyclinder. And more importantly, he found out a way to make this back-and-forth motion turn a wheel. By using a "crankshaft," the steam engine could produce circular motion. Watt may not have realized it at the time, but he had just invented the first railroad locomotive.

Unfortunately, Watt didn't have the money to develop his improved steam engine. However, he was able to convince and English manufacturer that building steam engines could become a profitable business. Together with his business partner, James Watt started a company to build steam engines. Of course he must have hoped this his improved steam engine would find many uses in factories. But little did he realize at the time that his machine would forever alter the course of history.

Phil Shapiro

Copyright 1995

All Rights Reserved


Postscript - July, 2009, Chris Cooper

I just read your brief summary of the invention of the steam engine, and it seems that it echoes much of what's on the web, including Wikipedia (that fount of all true knowledge :-)

It seems to me that neither Newcomen nor Watt invented (or evolved might be a closer word) the steam engine, inasmuch as steam was NOT the working fluid. What those two designed and built were atmospheric engines, where the steam was merely a way of producing a partial vacuum in the cylinder; the atmospheric pressure did the actual work. Indeed, I don't think it was the incoming steam that moved the piston, it was the counter-weight of the load on the other end of the beam.

I have read in several places that Watt considered "strong steam", as proposed (and eventually used) by Trevithick as highly dangerous and chastised those who championed it. (I think Goldsworthy Gurney was also one of the pioneers of strong steam). Atmospheric engines would never have become small enough (power-to-weight ratio) for mobile applications.

it might be best to acknowledge Murdoch's contribution too.

Thanks for making your info available

Yours cordially

Chris Cooper (NOT the semi-famous actor, BTW)

chriscooper @

Return to children's stories menu.