Steam engine is considered one of the most important inventions of the era of industrial revolution. However, it is quite difficult to ascertain who was its actual inventor, because of so many names associated with it.
Though, most of the sources give the credit to James Watt, others argue that Watt only compiled various inventions by others to come up with an improvised version of steam engine which already existed, though in a crude form.
The History of Steam Engine
The fact that steam could be harnessed as a driving force for mechanical engines was known to humans long before modern steam engines were invented. If the historical records are to be believed, Greeks were the first people to use steam-powered mechanical engines. Though these engines were crude in nature, they did serve the purpose.
Invention of Crude Steam Engine by Thomas Savery
In 1698, Thomas Savery, an English military engineer, got the patent for the first steam pump. During this period, animals were used to draw water from the mines. Savery's steam pump became an important invention in the mining sector, where it replaced animals to draw water.
The mechanism used in this pump was simple. The water was heated and the vapor produced from it, was stored in a tank. This was followed by isolating the tank from the source of steam and condensing the steam. This isolation and condensation of steam resulted in creation of vacuum, which was eventually used to draw water from mines.
Invention of Atmospheric Engine by Thomas Newcomen
Thomas Newcomen came up with the first proper steam engine after modifying Thomas Savery's pump. This machine was referred to as the atmospheric engine, as it used atmospheric pressure to work.
In this engine, the steam was first sent to a cylinder, where it was condensed using cold water. This process created a vacuum in the cylinder, which, in turn, created atmospheric pressure that was eventually used to operate the piston.
Though this was an improvised version of Savery's pump, Savery's patent turned out to be a hindrance for Newcomen. In 1712, Newcomen collaborated with John Calley to build an engine and used it to pump out the water from water-filled mines.
Improvisation of Steam Engine by James Watt
James Watt improvised Newcomen's design by eliminating its drawbacks and made the engine more efficient. One of the major drawbacks of the atmospheric engine was the enormous amount of energy wasted in heating and cooling the steam cylinder.
Watt dealt with this problem by building a separate condenser, which was connected to the cylinder by a valve. This made it possible to cool the steam with water and create necessary vacuum, without cooling the steam cylinder, thus eliminating the requirement of heating and cooling the steam cylinder again and again.
Invention of a new boiler and introduction and understanding of the concept of latent heat was helpful for Watt to a great extent. With time, steam engines improved and their use in different sectors increased. This invention was important as it paved way for the development of steam trains, which were used on a vast scale during the industrial revolution.
The engine improvised by James Watt turned out to be one of the most important inventions of the industrial revolution, thus making him play a major role in the history of steam engine. In fact, such was the role of steam engine that it is difficult to imagine the industrial revolution without it.