The greatest single advance in technology?

The picturesque town of Dartmouth in Devon is well known for its annual regatta and for the Royal Naval College where naval officers in the UK are trained.  Members of the British Royal Family have spent time there and Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth had one of her first meetings with her husband to be, Philip, when he was undergoing training there.


A few weeks ago, Dartmouth was honouring Thomas Newcomen, who has had, in some people’s eyes, a bigger impact on the world.  It was Newcomen who devised the first workable steam pump and 300 years ago established its first working prototype at a mine near Dudley Castle in Tipton, Staffordshire.  His pump enabled mining at greater depths by pumping away dangerous levels of water and made coal cheaper and more available.  His invention kick-started the Industrial Revolution in Britain and it has been said that “In the whole history of technology it would be difficult to find a greater single advance than this, nor one with a greater significance for all humanity”.  For a description of the Newcomen engine or atmospheric engine, as it sometimes known, see this site and scroll down to the second article .

New signs have been erected in Dartmouth celebrating Newcomen, there was a programme of lectures, a garden party and a beer (Newcomen Atmospheric Ale) has been brewed in his honour.  Newcomen was also honoured nationally by the issue of a postage stamp bearing his name.

One of the big local events was a new play written by the local author Linda Churchill and performed by the local “am dram” group, the Dartmouth players.  It was entitled “From Floods Defend”.

The play allowed the Dartmouth community to come together to celebrate Newcomen.  The play is essentially a chronology of his life and made little attempt to imagine the psychology behind the man.  So, we heard about his birth in the town and his very religious family and upbringing.  His religion, Baptism, played a huge part in his life and surfaced regularly during the play.  He is shown training as a lay preacher under the puritan, John Flavel who had been brought to Dartmouth by a group that included Newcomen’s father.  Flavel is shown during the play having to flee Dartmouth presumably as a result of the passing of the Act of Uniformity in 1662 which effectively removed non-conformists from the established church.  The play suggests that Newcomen’s religion gave him a stoicism in response to life’s events and it is known that his religion also provided him with important business contacts.  These included his long term collaborator, the plumber John Calley and his London business contact, Edward Wallin in whose house he probably died in 1729.

Newcomen trained as an ironmonger and made tools for sale in mines.  The play shows him on a sales visit to a coal mine in Worcestershire where he is confronted by a woman whose husband was killed in a mining accident.  This makes him recognise, for the first time, the problems of flooding and he and Calley resolve to try to solve the problem.  Newcomen and Calley are shown spending long nights of experimentation, finally being rewarded with a chance discovery that gives them the prize of a working pump.  The two men, although not scientifically trained, are skilled craftsmen and this may have helped them achieve their aim.

Newcomen and Calley are then shown in despair when they discover that a patent already exists on a steam-driven  pump in the name of Thomas Savery, another Devon inventor who had developed a primitive water pump in 1698.  In the play, a meeting between Savery and the two Dartmouth men seems to resolve this amicably.   I find this very unlikely.  It is true that Newcomen’s  pump depended on some of Savery’s ideas but Newcomen was also influenced by the work of the Frenchman Denis Papin, another person who had tried to harness the power of steam.  Despite this, Newcomen’s  pump was different and it worked.   The problem was that Savery’s patent was broad so that Newcomen had to settle for working under the Savery patent.  I would guess this held him back and reduced his income and I find it hard to believe this was amicable.  Even the 1712 prototype bears the names of Newcomen and Savery and this must have been difficult for the inventor.

An early Newcomen Engine

Newcomen’s discovery was a critical step in the Industrial Revolution in this and other countries and I did not feel the play brought out the broader implications of his work.  Many people believe that the steam engine was invented by James Watt; indeed I overheard someone discussing this in the audience.  In fact, James Watt modified the Newcomen design to improve its efficiency.   Watt made huge progress in the development of steam power and many Watt engines were built but Newcomen was the inventor.  The next big step forward was to use high pressure steam.  This required improved engineering and was achieved by the Cornishman, Richard Trevithick.   His engines were small and light enough to be used to make steam locomotives. The age of steam railways beckoned but it wouldn’t have happened without Newcomen’s  great invention.

3 thoughts on “The greatest single advance in technology?”

  1. just found this via the naked scientists, not complaining but a few extra words would have helped, such as the efficienty improvement by Watt was achieved by an external condenser and that Papin invented the pressure cooker.


      1. Thanks for your helpful additions to the story. I wanted to focus on Newcomen himself as I feel he is neglected and even after the 300th anniversary there has been little about him in the media.

        Hope you found the Naked Scientists stuff useful


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