Tag Archives: thomas newcomen

Let’s hear it for Thomas Newcomen!

I feel a bit sorry for Thomas Newcomen.  In 1712 he designed the first workable steam-powered pump.  This revolutionised mining and got the Industrial Revolution going.  2012 is the tercentenary of this great event and so far the mainstream media have been almost silent about him.  To try to raise awareness, I have written an article about the Newcomen anniversary on another blogging network.  Here is the link: http://occamstypewriter.org/irregulars/2012/11/20/lets-hear-it-for-thomas-newcomen/

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.

Tilting at Windmills

As you drive through East Devon towards Dorset on the A 30 in the west of England, there is plenty to see.  Near the junctions for Ottery St Mary, the road descends to a broad valley in a patchwork of green fields and trees.   This view has probably changed little for many years although the road, the railway, the phone masts and, if you look carefully, two small wind turbines, provide clear evidence of the effects of technology.   For me, the wind turbines do little to detract from the natural view.  I find wind turbines rather magnificent to look at and they also reassure me that we are doing something to generate renewable energy.  But that is, of course, my opinion and it is not shared by everybody.

Wind turbines have become a contentious topic.  There are several proposals to erect large wind turbines in Dorset and Devon and these have attracted furious local opposition and strong local support, sometimes in equal measure.  Some of these proposals have proceeded, some have not.  There is a proposal to build a huge wind farm in the Channel, visible from the Dorset Coast.  This is also attracting adverse comment.  Do we now “object” more or is this a natural human reaction to change? Is it our comfortable life style that allows us the luxury of objecting?  How did previous generations react to technological change?

One of the best examples of the effect of technological advance on human lives occurred exactly 300 years ago.   In 1712, Thomas Newcomen, an ironmonger from Dartmouth in Devon, installed the first steam-driven water pump at a coal mine in Dudley Castle in Tipton, Staffordshire.   Let’s try to imagine how people might have reacted to this new machine by taking ourselves back to the early 1700’s.  It was only a century since Elizabeth 1st was on the throne and life was fairly primitive.  Transport on land depended on walking or on horse drawn vehicles.  When power was needed this came from muscle (humans or animals) or the elements (wind or water).   The economy was largely rural and windmills were the most complex machines people encountered.    So, how would Newcomen’s steam pump have seemed to people at that time.   It looked like a great dragon; the long wooden beam nodded twelve times a minute pumping water from a depth of 50 metres.   As it nodded, steam spewed out with a fearsome hissing.  The countryside was changed forever by this noisy beast.  To some, it signalled the end of the world?  It certainly signalled a new world and major change. 

Necomen’s steam pump

Newcomen’s pump enabled mining at greater depths so that coal could be obtained more easily.  Cheap coal lead to increased industrial activity that accelerated the Industrial Revolution.  Newcomen’s invention underpinned this 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”.  As these Newcomen engines sprung up throughout the mining parts of the UK, there must have been considerable disquiet and nobody could have foreseen the change that it brought.  James Watt improved on Newcomen’s design and later Trevithick made a small lightweight version enabling the eventual development of steam railways.  Newcomen’s invention brought disruption and change but also huge benefits; nobody could have predicted its effects.

Now let’s move forward 150 years to the heyday of Victorian railway building.  Today, we take railways for granted, they are part of our landscape, but how did people react to the coming of the railways in the 1800s?   Don’t forget that, before the railways, travel still depended on horses or horse-drawn vehicles.  Whereas some quickly saw the potential of the railways to bring prosperity, others were strongly opposed.  Opposition came from those who objected to encroachment on their land or those such as canal owners whose livelihoods were threatened.    There were also fears that the human body would not withstand travel at speed or that farm animals would be frightened by the passing trains.  Some talked of “railway vandalism”.  In Dorchester (Dorset) there was local opposition to the destruction of Maumbury Rings by a proposed railway and the route was changed.  This was the first antiquity saved by local opposition and lead in 1846 to the establishment of the Dorset Museum with the express aim of preserving local natural history and archaeology.  Overall, the railways brought major change to people’s lives.   Some of this change was negative but much was positive; the railways brought prosperity to towns linked by rail and gave people freedom to move about more easily.

These two examples from history tell us that when technological change occurs, people’s lives are affected.  There are both positive and negative effects of the change and many are hard to predict.  So what about the 21st century, when we face great challenges, one of the greatest being climate change.  We need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels in order to cut carbon emissions so that irreversible, damaging climate change is averted.  Renewable energy sources will be very important here and we need to employ a mixture of different renewable technologies including solar, wind and wave power.   Technological change on this scale will have some negative consequences but there will be positive effects, some of which we can easily see and some that we cannot begin to predict.

 This article appeared in the May 2012 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.  The magazine is published in Dorset and so all articles have a Dorset focus.  The topics covered often have relevance outside of Dorset.

Steam Power

The young boy, perhaps 8 years old, stands in the garden.   He watches the embankment twenty feet above him at the end of the garden, and waits.  Here comes another.  Noise, belching smoke, fire.  Sometimes they shed burning coals that set alight the dry grass on the embankment.  If he waves, the driver may wave back, the people in the coaches too.  The engines carry ornate insignia and names he can still remember.  It was like seeing old friends when “Canadian Pacific”, “Holland-Afrika Line” , “Crewkerne” or “Ottery St Mary” thundered by.  Sometimes the whole train was named and the “Pines Express” promised an exotic coastal vision of Bournemouth for northern travellers.

I am still fascinated by steam trains and fortunate to live near two preserved steam railways.  The journeys from Totnes up the Dart Valley and from Paignton along the coast to Kingswear are wonderful for observing nature but also evoke a bygone era.  It is difficult for us to appreciate nowadays the liberating effect of the coming of the railways 150 years ago.  People became freer to travel, produce could be sent further afield and lives were irreversibly changed.   

Few realise that we owe the invention of steam power to Thomas Newcomen, from Dartmouth.   The steam power he invented lead to the development of the railways.  His story is told in my latest “Strange Science” article for Devon Life Magazine (https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/published-stuff/devon-life-magazine/).