Animation of a schematic Newcomen
– Steam is shown pink and water is blue.
– Valves move from open (green) to closed (red)
(born shortly before 24 February
1664; died 5 August 1729) was an ironmonger
by trade and a Baptist lay preacher
calling. He was born in Dartmouth, Devon, England,
near a part of the country noted for its tin
Flooding was a major problem,
limiting the depth at which the mineral could be mined. Newcomen
created the first practical steam engine for pumping water, the
Newcomen steam engine
Consequently, he can be regarded as a forefather of the Industrial Revolution
He could be said to have been more than a lay preacher as he was a
teaching elder in the local Baptist
That he continued in business is almost certain because the church
could not afford to pay him as a full time elder. His father had
been one of a group who brought the well known Puritan John Flavel
Dartmouth. Later one of Newcomen's business contacts in London,
Edward Wallin, was another baptist minister who had connections
with the well known Dr John
of Horsleydown, Southwark. Newcomen's connection with the Baptist church at Bromsgrove materially aided the spread of his steam
Developing the steam engine
Newcomen's great achievement was his steam engine, probably
developed about 1710, combining the ideas of Thomas Savery
. It is likely that Newcomen was already
acquainted with Savery, whose forebears were merchants in south
Devon in 1712.
Savery also had a post with the
Sick and Hurt Seamen
, which took him to Dartmouth. Savery had
devised a 'fire engine', a kind of thermic syphon
, in which steam was admitted
to an empty container and then condensed. The vacuum
thus created was used to suck water from the
at the bottom of the mine. The 'fire
engine' was not very effective and could not work beyond a limited
depth of around thirty feet.
Newcomen replaced the receiving vessel (where the steam was
condensed) with a cylinder containing a piston. Instead of the
vacuum drawing in water, it drew down the piston. This was used to
work a beam engine
, in which a large
wooden beam rocked upon a central fulcrum
On the other side of the beam was a chain attached to a pump
at the base of the mine. As the steam cylinder was
refilled with steam, readying it for the next power stroke
, water was drawn into the pump
cylinder and expelled into a pipe to the surface by the weight of
the machinery. Newcomen and his partner John Calley built one of the first
engines at the Conygree Coalworks near Dudley in the West
Midlands. A working replica of this engine can be seen
at the Black Country Living Museum nearby.
Comparatively little is known of Newcomen's later life. In his
later life (at least), the engine affairs were conducted through an
unincorporated company, the 'Proprietors of the Invention for
Raising Water by Fire'. Its secretary and treasurer was John Meres,
clerk to the Society of Apothecaries in London. That society formed
a company which had a monopoly on supplying medicines to the Navy
providing a close link with Savery, whose will he witnessed.
Committee of the Proprietors also included Edward Wallin, a Baptist
of Swedish descent; and pastor of a church at Maze Pond, Southwark.
Newcomen died at his house in 1729, and his
body was buried at Bunbury Fields.
time of his death, about 75 of his engines, operating under
Savery's patent (extended by statute so that it did not expire
until 1733), had been installed by Newcomen and others in most of
the important mining districts of Britain: draining coal mines in
Country, Warwickshire and near Newcastle upon Tyne; at tin and copper mines in Cornwall; and in lead mines in Flintshire and Derbyshire, amongst other places
The Newcomen engine held its place without material change for
about three-quarters of a century, spreading gradually to more and
more areas of the UK and to mainland Europe. At first brass
cylinders had been used but these were expensive and limited in
iron casting techniques pioneered by the Coalbrookdale Company in the 1720s allowed bigger and bigger
cylinders to be used, up to about 6 feet (1.8 m) in diameter by the
1760s, and experience gradually led to better construction and
minor refinements in layout.
Its mechanical details were
much improved by John Smeaton
built many large engines of this type in the early 1770s; his
improvements were rapidly adopted. By 1775 about 600 Newcomen
engines had been built, although many of these had worn out before
then, and been abandoned or replaced.
The Newcomen Engine was by no means an efficient machine, although
it was probably as complicated as engineering and materials
techniques of the early eighteenth century could support. Much heat
was lost when condensing the steam, as this cooled the cylinder.
This did not matter unduly at a colliery, where unsaleable small
coal (slack) was available, but significantly increased the mining
costs where coal was not readily available, as in Cornwall.
Newcomen's engine was gradually replaced after 1775 in areas where
coal was expensive (especially in Cornwall) by an improved design, invented by James Watt, in which the steam was condensed in a
, aided by better engineering techniques including
machine, was much more fuel efficient, enabling Watt and his
partner Matthew Boulton
substantial royalties based on the fuel saved.
Watt subsequently made other improvements, including the
double-acting engine, where both the up and down strokes were power
strokes. These were especially suitable for driving textile mills,
and many Watt engines were employed in these industries. At first
attempts to drive machinery by Newcomen engines had mixed success,
as the single power stroke produced a jerky motion, but use of
flywheels and better engineering largely overcame these problems.
By 1800 hundreds of non-Watt rotary engines had been built,
especially in collieries and ironworks where irregular motion was
not a problem but also in textile mills. (see reference (2)
Despite Watt's improvements, Common Engines (as they were then
known) remained in use for a considerable time, and many more
Newcomen engines than Watt ones were built even during the period
of Watt's patent (up to 1800), as they were cheaper and less
complicated: of over 2,200 engines built in the eighteenth century,
only about 450 were Watt engines. Elements of Watt's design,
especially the Separate Condenser, were incorporated in many
"pirate" engines. Even after 1800 Newcomen type engines continued
to be built and condensers were added routinely to these. They were
also commonly retro-fitted to existing Newcomen engines (the
so-called "pickle-pot" condenser).
examples of Newcomen engines in the Science
Museum and the Ford Museum, Dearborn amongst other places. Perhaps the last
Newcomen-style engine to be used commercially—and the last still
remaining on its original site—is at Elsecar, near Barnsley in South Yorkshire.