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Thomas Newcomen was an ironmonger, but he made a significant contribution to the Industrial Revolution with his invention of the atmospheric steam engine.

Newcomen was born in Dartmouth, Devon in 1664. He was an ‘ironmonger’ – he made and sold things made of metal. Devon was an area which had many mines and Newcomen knew about the problems that miners had with water. Pumping was difficult. Simple wooden pumps had been used for centuries but could not lift water very far. Sometimes water was raised in buckets, but the deeper copper and tin lodes were often impossible to work.

Newcomen’s engine was first one to use a piston inside a cylinder. This was an important development: today petrol and diesel engines have pistons and cylinders. Engineering at the time was not very advanced and it was difficult to make the piston fit tightly enough inside the cylinder. Newcomen had a groove around the piston with a seal of rope or leather in it.

How the Newcomen engine works

The steam enters the cylinder under the piston. Cold water from the tank above goes into the cylinder and condenses the steam back into water. The cylinder now has no air in it - a vacuum. The pressure of the air outside pushes the piston down. This pulls down one end of a beam on the top of a wall of the engine house.  A long rod is connected to the other end. This works a pump down the mineshaft.

The first successful Newcomen engine was built at Conygree coal mine near Dudley in Staffordshire in 1712. It had a brass cylinder which was 21 inches in diameter and 7ft. 10 inches high. The beam operated 12 times a minute and each stroke brought 10gallons of water from a depth of over 150ft. Newcomen’s engines were widely used to drain coal mines and some of them worked for over 200 years. Obviously at a coal mine coal was plentiful and there were no costs of transport.

It is probable that an earlier one was built at Wheal Vor mine, between Penzance and Helston. This was the first steam engine used at a metal mine. The problem about using them in Cornwall was coal. All the coal used had to be brought by sea from South Wales by sea and then taken to the mine. This was difficult as there were few proper roads. The Wheal Vor engine is said to have needed 80 mule loads of coal [10tons] each day as fuel. Before 1741 customs duty was paid on coal landed which kept the price high. Many of the small mines could not afford to use the engine. By 1778 there were over 70 Newcomen engines in use in Cornwall.  They were to be replaced by the more efficient engines made by Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt.

Another man from Devon called Thomas Savery invented a type of pump in 1698 that used steam. It was not very successful but Savery had taken out a patent on ‘raising water….by….fire’.  This meant that no-one else was allowed to make or sell a similar project. This caused problems for Newcomen and he eventually went into partnership with Savery’s company after his death in 1715.


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