Monday, February 1, 2016
On the Steam Engine
On the Steam Engine: As one of the greatest innovations in engineering history, the steam engine marked the first practical way of converting heat into mechanical work. Of course, people had been boiling water to generate mechanical motion for thousands of years prior to the 1700s, but no single device had yet standardized the process. In 1712, English inventor Thomas Newcomen built the first usable steam engine. Since Newcomen had a background in ironmongery, he had a vested interest in designing and selling specialized tools to miners. One big problem that miners faced in the early 1700s was excess water (which frequently flooded mine tunnels). Thus, Newcomen's engine became the primary pumping mechanism for getting excess water out of (coal and tin) mines. Unfortunately, Newcomen's engine was not very efficient, which prompted Scottish innovator James Watt (and his English business partner Matthew Boulton) to improve it. By the mid-1770s, Watt had successfully doubled the steam engine's (fuel) efficiency, and became the de facto "godfather" of modern engineering. Because Watt recognized a problem, developed a series of potential solutions, and settled on an effective improvement, he embodied the true essence of what it meant to be an "engineer" (instead of just an inventor).