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Learning at Black Country Living Museum

The Newcomen Steam Engine

/media/learning/library/LV_Industrial_revolution.jpgIn 1712, Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729), from Dartmouth in Devon, invented the world's first successful steam engine in which mechanical work was achieved by a piston moving in a cylinder. At the time its potential was little realised outside the immediate world of mine owners: it was simply a more effective way of pumping water out of ever deeper coal mines than harnessing animal power. But Newcomen's pioneering work - subsequently refined by James Watt and other engineers - established the steam engine as one of those few inventions which arguably, was to change the course of world history.

The Museum's association with this momentous event is unique and very special. Nothing remains of the original engine but the Museum has built the only full sized working replica of the original engine which, moreover, is known to have been located in the Black Country. Its exact location is still debated but there is strong evidence to suggest that it was put to work, in 1712, on a coal mine at Coneygree - in Tipton - close to Dudley Castle and no more than a mile or so from the site of the Museum's replica.

The significance of this engine can hardly be overstated. It was a steam engine in name but it did not derive its power from the pressure and expanisve force of steam. Instead it used the weight of the atmosphere to push the piston against a partial vacuum in the cylinder, created by condensing steam with cold water. So it has come to be known as an "atmospheric engine". Nevertheless, with its combination of boiler, cylinder, piston and automatic valve gear, the Newcomen engine established all the major components of later steam engines and the development of mechanical power from heat began here with this engine. To people at the time it was a "Fire Engine" which burned huge quantities of coal and belched thick smoke. It was hugely inefficient but it accelerated industrial growth in South Staffordshire. It helped give the region its name and kept it going twenty four hours a day, "Black by Day - Red by Night" as Elihu Burritt, the United States Consul in Birmingham observed in 1868. Newcomen's pioneering work first made possible the "twenty four/seven" regime which propelled industrial growth across the Western World. It freed industrial production from the uncertainties associated with wind and water power, human and animal muscle. and it all started here, so it seems, within view of the ruins of the fourteenth century Dudley Castle.


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Click on the images to find out more about the significance and impact of the Newcomen Engine.


Did you know?

interesting fact image

By 1846, steam engine design had developed so fast that the engine fitted to the SS Great Britain was capable of 1000 horsepower.

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