Early 18th century depiction of a steam engine

Description

The first viable steam engine was developed by Thomas Newcomen in 1712; it used the simple principle of atmospheric expansion and condensation to create a vertical beam motion of around ten strokes per minute. Newcomen’s engine was quickly put to work in coal mining, where it was used to pump out water from deep collieries, but it also had some limited application in raising water from deep wells.

Newcomen’s engine provided an enormous benefit in deep coal mining which had previously been plagued by flooding. However, early steam engines proved expensive to run, were inefficient and remained limited in their application. Steam power was revolutionised in the second half of the 18th century through developments pioneered by the engineer James Watt, who introduced smaller, more efficient engines that for the first time could also produce rotary motion. Watt’s steam engines were put to extensive use in British industries, most notably in textile manufacturing where they were used to power mill machinery for spinning and weaving.

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