Engr 5101. The Engineering Profession


Part 1: History of Technology

(1a: Introduction, Newcomen and Watt)

© G R Peters

Note. These are what the title says, "notes". It is not a finished, formal document, and it is put on the web site as a convenience to students. The style is therefore very informal, especially with regard to referencing, although all the information on sources should be there. I would be grateful if any errors on my part are pointed out. E-mail me at gpeters@engr.mun.ca


1.1 The Broad Picture (overhead 1: Summary Outline)

Origins and development of engineering as a profession and an examination of its values. The place of technology in society and the nature of technological decisions... (Calendar)

In the first part of the course (about 3 weeks) we will talk about our "roots", i.e. the beginnings of engineering as a recognizable profession. The natural subject area for this is the history of science and technology. This is a vast area, and we clearly will have to be selective. The beginnings of modern engineering occurred in what is generally referred to as the Industrial Revolution, mainly centred in Britain during the 100 year period starting about the mid seventeen hundreds. This period was characterized by great advances in science, and even more impressively, in technology. The effect on society was very pronounced. With the transition from hand crafts, animal and water powered mills, to machine tools and steam power, there was great dislocation of labour, and migration from the countryside to growing cities. I intend to spend a few lectures describing the major turning points in this technology, and to look at two or three examples of engineers who were innovators and leaders of the time.

In order to keep the cost of texts down to a reasonable level, I have not specified a book for this section. One of my main sources will be Cardwell (the referenced history of technology and others). Note: The copy of this book in the MUN library is published by Norton.

In the second section of the course, we will examine the place of engineering in relation to society, and in particular, the connections between engineering and science. The text by Postman will be a main source for this part of the course. Postman is a recognized "anti technologist", and ideally we should have a book to balance the scales. If you can afford it, I recommend buying Florman (The Civilized Engineer... See outline reference).  It is available (in photocopied form) in the bookstore for about $8.

The final section deals with engineering ethics. This topic is subject to a fair amount of controversy when it comes to whether and how much of it should (or can) be taught. As a text I think we have an excellent book, with many interesting case studies, concluding with a dramatic exercise on the space shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986.


My main aim in this course is to get students to read, think, and learn a bit about the profession for which they are doing all this hard work and study to enter. At the end of it, I hope you will see engineering in some historical and social context. The load is not meant to be heavy, but it is necessary to read a couple of books and a few articles and do some library research.

I also would like to have discussions in class about issues which we identify, or anything related to the course on which you have an opinion. Don't be afraid to speak up. I am proposing to base a fair bit (45 %) of the evaluation on three written assignments. I will put some considerable emphasis on good writing.

1.3 A bit more detail... detailed outline.


What is a profession, anyway?

We call ourselves a profession, but what does this mean?  There is actually a formal basis in law, since engineering is regulated in each province of Canada by an Act of the Legislature.  In fact, the government hands that control to the engineering profession itself, so that we are "self regulating".

How do we persuade the government to do this, and what are our rights and responsibilities?  Much more of this to come, but first let us talk about the terminology.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary:

...A calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive preparation including instruction in skills and methods as well as in the scientific, historical, or scholarly principles underlying such skills and methods, maintaining by force of organization or concerned opinion high standards of achievement and conduct, and committing its members to continued study and to a kind of work which has for its prime purpose the rendering of a public service.

Ontario legislature (1969).

A self-selected self-disciplined group of individuals who hold themselves out to the public as possessing a special skill derived from training and education and are prepared to exercise that skill in the interests of the public

Characteristics of a profession:

1. A body of knowledge

2. Organization of the members, sanctioned by law. 3. Public Good

This is the basis for the privilege of self-government.

A good definition for engineering itself is the one used by ABET, and you would find similar wording in any modern source. Note in particular the three terms "knowledge", "judgement" and "economically".

Engineering is the profession in which a knowledge of the mathematical and natural sciences, gained by study, experience, and practice, is applied with judgement to develop ways to utilize, economically, the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind.

-Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)

Actually, the use of the term "professional" engineer is fairly recent, and is connected to the way in which the activity is regulated by law. Each province of Canada has a statute which governs the "Practice of Engineering". If we look in the act for this province, we find a much more detailed definition - a least of the "practice":

APEGN ACT (Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Newfoundland)

(j) "practice of engineering" means reporting on, advising on, evaluating, designing, preparing plans and specifications for or directing the construction, technical inspection, maintenance or operation of a structure, work or process

(i) that is aimed at the discovery, except by the practice of geoscience, development or utilization of matter, materials or energy or is designed for the use and convenience of human beings, and

(ii) that requires in the reporting, advising, evaluating, designing, preparation or direction the professional application of the principles of mathematics, chemistry, physics or a related applied subject, and includes providing educational instruction on the matters contained in this paragraph to a student at an educational institution but excludes practising as a natural scientist;

By the end of this course, I hope we will have put some flesh on these rather general statements. We still have to work on what makes us different from scientists, and what it means to be professional. Let me conclude today with a quotation from Herbert Hoover, (1874-1964), 31st president of the United States, and a professional engineer himself:


It is a great profession. There is the fascination of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realization in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to men. Then it elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer's high privilege.

The great liability of the engineer compared to men of other professions is that his works are out in the open where all can see them. His acts, step by step, are in hard substance. He cannot bury his mistakes in the grave like the doctors. He cannot argue them into thin air or blame the judge like the lawyers. He cannot, like the architects, cover his failures with trees and vines. He cannot, like the politicians, screen his shortcomings by blaming his opponents and hope the people will forget. The engineer cannot deny he did it. If his works do not work, he is damned...

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964)
Thirty-first president of the United States.

3  VIDEO. Credit Where It's Due. From the series "The Day the Universe Changed" with James Burke. 50 min.

This video describes the society into which the Industrial Revolution was born. It stresses the exploitative nature of the English economy at the time, and the tremendous market awaiting new products by the mid 18th century. The technological problems are not described in any detail, and the tone is one of business opportunities. It is the role of the dissenters in all of this which is to be inferred from the title. [1]


The next several lectures will deal with a selection of key events and interesting people involved in that "transformation of society by technology" known as the Industrial Revolution. [2]  Exactly which events and people to choose for a short exposure such as this is clearly subjective. Historians would probably choose differently, but I looked for those things and people which are interesting from an engineering education point of view, and which I hope will also interest you. The criteria for my choices have more to do with interest than making a complete historical overview. Here is an outline:

When we identify inventions and other "technological turning points", to use Cardwell's terminology, I think we should ask ourselves at least the following questions. The answers will help to clarify the nature of technological innovation.


What problem was being solved?

Even when the problem is clearly defined, the results of its solution can sometimes go far beyond the original scope. For example, as we shall see, the development of the original elementary steam engines was driven by the need to get water out of mines. Their application to motive power for transportation was probably never imagined at the time.

Did the demand exist, or was it developed?

Demand for an innovation depends on many people recognizing the need for a technical solution. Most inventors totally underestimate the frequent apathy of their potential customers to the innovation.

What new science did it depend on?

There might be very little. For example, the development of steam technology essentially preceded the science of thermodynamics. In other cases, science led. For example, the development of electric motors was not possible before Faraday and others had advanced the science of electricity and magnetism. But the popular notion that engineering applications only proceed after the basic science has been discovered is a misleading and vast oversimplification.

Was the scientific and/or engineering establishment supportive?

There are lots of cases where innovation is resisted by the establishment, even by so-called experts.

Was this incremental, or a new concept?

A lot of the advances in technology are due to small improvements rather than the big jump. Both types of engineering innovation are important. One of the interesting features is that incremental innovation is much easier to sell, and market pull is more likely to exist. The big change, or "paradigm shift" is likely to require some "technology push."

What science and or technology followed?

Scientific advances often follow an innovation, which sometimes comes about with a lot of intuition, trial and error, and determination. Once something is seen to work, science is motivated to explain why it does. Manned flight is a excellent example. Lots of professors at the time said that heavier-than-air machines were impossible.

An interesting example of technology leading science can be observed in an ancient device which Cardwell regards as one of the world's most important inventions. This is the weight - driven clock, which appeared in the 13th century. Apparently no one knows who invented this extremely useful device. There are some very interesting points to be made here and let us take a minute to look at it, even though it takes us back hundreds of years before the industrial revolution. [See Cardwell, Fontana History of Technology, p 39 for the picture used]. [2]

This device used the natural frequency of a rotating mass system to regulate the clock. The theories of resonance and "natural frequency" were hundreds of years into the future. It is a nice example of  how technology can precede the science necessary to explain how it works. We will notice this in many cases, and I draw your attention to it because as I mentioned above, there is a very common misconception about technological progress which assumes that first there must be a scientific discovery, then the applications follow. Sometimes it happens that way, but frequently the  inventor follows intuition and trial and error to innovate, and the science follows later.


We now go forward to the eighteenth century, and the beginnings of the "Industrial Revolution". We start our little journey through the engineers, scientists and technology of this period in Britain, which changed the entire world,  with a look at Thomas Newcomen's (1664-1729) great invention. Cardwell compares the importance of Newcomen's "atmospheric" engine to the printing press of Gutenberg,(1394-1467) and the weight-driven clock, mentioned above.

The "fire engine" of Newcomen was not a machine to put out fires, as we generally know the term today, but a machine that used fire to do something other than to smelt iron, heat homes and cook food. Hence the name. First let us set a little of the background, so that the problem that Newcomen was trying to solve can be identified.

Finding fuel for manufacturing, heating and cooking  was becoming a problem in Britain. Wood was the traditional domestic fuel, but the forests were being rapidly used up. Very significantly, wood was being used to provide materials for the British Navy (2000 full-grown oaks per ship- Clark [4], p62 ) - which, no doubt, would have been seen to be far more important to the government than mere domestic heat for the people. Even more demanding was the flourishing iron industry, from about the middle of the 16th century. (We will see something of that technology in the next video.) Fortunately, as James Burke said in the last video, "England was an island built on coal", and  the coal mining business was booming. But the miners (of coal and other minerals, such as tin) had a very serious problem, and that was to find a way to keep water out of the mines.

Newcomen was not the first person to try to solve this problem of getting water out of the mines. In 1699 Captain Thomas Savery,(1650-1715) FRS, patented a "fire engine". This was not even an engine in our sense of the word, since it had no moving parts. [3], p 23.

An old drawing of Savery's engine does exist. (Picture from H W Dickinson A Short History of the Steam Engine, p22, Frank Cass and Co, 1963. See  [6].)

Cardwell doubts that it ever worked properly, and was apparently not a big success in the mines. Without a piston to multiply atmospheric pressure to get a force, it was limited to raising water to about 10 metres, even in theory. The practical limit was less. Presumably for mines of any substantial depth, multiple installations were necessary.

But entrepreneurship has been around for a long time, and Savery promoted his fire engine vigorously. He called his engine the "Miner's Friend" and here is his advertisement [3] p25.

"Captain Savery's Engines which raise water by the force of fire in any reasonable quantities and to any height being now brought to perfection and ready for public use. These are to give notice to all Proprietors of Mines and Collieries which are encumbered with water, that they may be furnished with Engines to drain the same, at his Workhouse in Salisbury Court, London, where it may be seen working on Wednesdays and Saturdays in every week from 3 to 6 in the afternoon, where they may be satisfied of the performance Thereof, with less expense than any other force of Horse or Hands, and less subject to repair."

From the description, I think its principle of operation was somewhat as follows.  (See sketch)

It consisted of two closed vessels connected to a boiler by pipes and valves. Steam was let into one, which was then cooled, condensing the steam and creating a vacuum, which drew water from the mine into a reservoir. Steam was then admitted again, and the pressure forced the water out through a pipe. Note that it is the pressure of the atmosphere which is doing the work of lifting the water. The device is therefore properly called an atmospheric engine, not a steam engine, although the pressure of steam was apparently used to blow the water out of the reservoir. It did not work automatically, but required continuous manual tending to the valves.

Cardwell points out that the value of promotion should not be underestimated. When Thomas Newcomen came along with his first practical version, around 1712, the idea had begun to take hold. For one thing, Savery had a higher standing in society than Newcomen. He was a military engineer, and well established. He was elected to the Royal Society. But he also had a sound concept, and vitally important, had the patent.

Unfortunately for Newcomen, the patent granted was in terms of "all means of raising water by fire", and thus so broad that it stood in the way of Newcomen's much more functional machine, which was the real engineering innovation. Rolt [3] describes the situation this way :

"It has happened repeatedly in the history of invention that scientists and men of high education have mastered important new principles but have totally lacked the practical skill and common sense to apply them to any useful purpose. It would appear that successful practical application calls for human qualities of a different order; for intuitive genius rather than intellectual reasoning; for the craftsman's manual dexterity and resourcefulness rather than the savant's store of theoretical knowledge. So it was with Thomas Newcomen, the Devonian ironmonger and blacksmith, who succeeded where Huygens, Papin and Savery all failed."
L. T. C. Rolt, Great Engineers, p25.

Newcomen's engine, with its piston,  was so much of an advance on the rudimentary Savery device that it has to be regarded as a new invention. As in the case of Savery's engine, it was an atmospheric engine, where the pressure of the atmosphere, not the steam, was doing the work.  The principle is illustrated in the sketch below.  Steam is admitted to the space below the piston. Initially the condensate and air from the previous cycle is blown out by the incoming steam,  and when the space is full the steam valve is closed. Then a stream (later improvements used a spray) of cold water was admitted into the space with the steam. The steam condensed, and the pressure of the atmosphere above the piston forced it down, providing the force to lift water in the mine.  The complete mechanism is described below.

 The following description of this first engine, installed in 1712, comes from R. J. Law of the Science Museum, quoted in Clark [4].

Dudley Castle Newcomen Engine, 1712.

A vertical cylinder, open at the top, was supplied by steam from a boiler underneath... The piston, packed with leather and sealed with a layer of water on top, was hung by a chain from the arch head of a rocking beam. From the other end of the beam the pump rods were suspended. When steam at slightly above atmospheric pressure was admitted into the cylinder, the piston was drawn up by the weight of the pump rods, and any air or condensate blown out of the cylinder through non-return valves. After the steam valve was closed, the steam in the engine was rapidly condensed by a jet of cold water. The unbalanced atmospheric pressure drove the piston down, raising the pump rods, and making the working stroke. The cycle was then repeated, the steam valve and injection valve being opened and closed by a plug rod hung from the beam. The Dudley Castle engine had a cylinder of 19 inches internal diameter, and made a stroke of about 6 feet. At each stroke it raised about 10 gallons of water 51 yards, and at 12 strokes per minute, developed about 5.5 horsepower."

You may have noticed in the picture of the Newcomen engine at Dudley Castle that the artist labelled it as being invented by Capt Savery and Mr Newcomen. This is no doubt an indication of the struggle around Savery's patent, and Newcomen ended up joining forces with Savery, and sharing the credit with him. Not only that, but he had to agree to give a royalty to Savery for every Newcomen engine built. Even worse, writers at the time insisted on calling his engines "Savery engines". It was very difficult for a simple blacksmith to get credit for doing something better than a member of the establishment. It is also apparently due to this dispute that some 13 years elapsed between Savery's patent and the installation of the first successful engine.

The great drawback of the Newcomen engine was cost and its enormous appetite for coal. This was not too bad in coal mining areas, but where coal had to be transported, such as in the tin mining regions of Cornwall, in the south of England, the resulting high cost was a problem.

The most expensive part of the engine was the cylinder, which was initially cast in brass, and hand finished on the inside. The improved processes for cast iron, and better boring equipment, made it possible to reduce the costs by 90 % in the next few years. Although it was a struggle in the beginning to get mine owners to buy the engine, by the end of the 18th century, 60 Newcomen engines were operating in Cornwall, and hundreds more in the rest of Britain and Europe.

Some economics in 1727

A 1727 account (p47-48 Dickenson) shows that for a Newcomen engine with a cylinder 29 inches diameter, the cost was about 1000 Pounds Sterling. The same document shows that tradesmen were paid about 15 shillings per week, or 0.75 Pounds Sterling. 1000 Pounds is therefore equivalent to 1000/0.75 or 1333 weeks of a tradesman's salary. If we assume that today such a tradesman would earn $30000 per year or about $600 per week, that 1000 Pounds, equivalent to 1333 weeks labour, is the equivalent of about 600*1333 or $800,000. That's a lot of money for perhaps a 10 hp (7.5 kW) engine.

Now let us apply the innovation questions to see what can be learned.

What problem was being solved?

The effort was directed at pumping water from mines. Other forms of power (e.g. waterwheels and windmills) were already in use for many other applications, such as grinding grain, but they had severe limitations. A river was not always in the right place, and the wind did not always blow. Note that the Newcomen engine had to be built in place, and was not portable. It was not the invention which would later revolutionize transportation, for example.

Did the demand exist, or was it developed?

Operators of mines wanted the problem solved. But the solution had to be cost-effective, and there was a selling job to be done. The solution to a problem is often more evident to the inventor than it is to the person with the problem, and demand only develops as success is observed.

What new science did it depend on?

The fact that the atmosphere exerted a pressure was essential, but there was little else to draw on.

Was the scientific and/or engineering establishment supportive?

Savery was accepted, (he was a member of the Royal Society) but Newcomen, a dissenter, was not given much credit.

Was this incremental, or a new concept?

New. Some credit must be given to Savery, but Newcomen invented the piston, and got the machine to work. He was a practical blacksmith.

What science and or technology followed?

Not much directly, but James Watt made a major advance on Newcomen's basic machine, as we shall see, and an immense amount of science (thermodynamics) then followed.

4.3  Video "Out of the Fiery Furnace" (approx. 40 min).

The film was made by Robert Raymond, of Pennsylvania State University, in the mid-eighties, and shown on PBS. The narrator is Michael Charlton.

It starts with the famous Newcomen engine, and covers several "turning points in technology", on which we will dwell in more detail shortly.

Names and places will be mentioned, so it might be useful to identify these.

Names in the Video "Out of the Fiery Furnace"

There are also many English place names, so a sketch map of Great Britain might be useful. (See any Atlas)

Place names mentioned:


Almost everyone has heard of James Watt, (1736 -1819) usually in one's early acquaintance with science in school. His name lives on in the SI unit for power, an indication of the importance of his contribution to technology. He was born in Scotland and trained in London as an instrument maker. He returned to Glasgow, and set up an instrument shop at Glasgow University in 1757. James Burke (in the video) said he had connections .. we do know that like Newcomen, he was a dissenter. At the University, he would have been what we now know as a technician, i.e. assisting professors and students, but not generally teaching.

The usual story of how he got his world-changing idea is that he was sitting by the fire watching the kettle boil, and conceived the notion that the pressure of the whistling steam could do work. In fact, the portrait shown of him in the  film we recently saw has a kettle steaming away near him; maybe this is the reason the story is so well known.

Historians of technology apparently do not give this popular story much credit. The British historian Rolt [3] has this to say: .. in neither case (he was speaking also of the application of the "picturesque fiction" to Newcomen) is there a grain of truth in the story. There was no occasion for Newcomen or Watt to discover a power already well known, while it was the power of the atmosphere and not the power of steam they harnessed in their inventions.

In fact, Watt's engine was, like Newcomen's, an atmospheric engine; in that steam was only used - at least in the early models - to produce a partial vacuum under the piston, by condensation. Watt's big contribution was to remove the condensation process from the cylinder to a separate vessel, (called a condenser) connected to the cylinder. This was a brilliant idea, and was arrived at only after careful analysis of the problem. We will now spend a little time to gain an understanding of how this idea developed.

The historians tell us that Watt's involvement began in 1763 when he was asked to repair a piece of university lab equipment - a small working model of Newcomen's engine. Note that Watt's initial problem was to repair the model, and in the course of defining exactly the problem was, solved the larger problem of increasing the efficiency of the Newcomen engine, specifically, by reducing its coal consumption. He was not trying to find a way to pump water from mines, that was Newcomen's problem - he was just trying to do it better.  This was in the 1760's, and Newcomen (1664-1729) was long gone. As mentioned above, the first documented Newcomen engine was installed in 1712, 24 years before Watt was born.

Of course he had no idea that his innovative solution would "change the world" as James Burke said in the video.

He soon found that the problem was that there was apparently not enough steam from the boiler for the engine to run continuously. Yet the boiler should have been big enough, judging from the scale of the model. Watt knew something of the thermodynamics involved, and was working with Professor Black, who was mentioned in the Burke video. A sketch will help us understand his analysis. (Basic Newcomen Engine).

Watt calculated the amounts of steam which should have been sufficient, and discovered that the boiler was supplying far more than it needed in order to fill the space below the piston. Remember that the basic function of steam in the atmospheric engine was to force air out from below the piston, and then to be condensed into liquid to produce the partial vacuum. He soon saw the problem of why so much steam was required. In the old Newcomen engines, as soon as steam was admitted, it was immediately being condensed by the cold brass cylinder. The cylinder was cold because the condensing phase, during which cold water sprayed into it, had just been completed. The newly admitted steam would condense at once, and be blown out as water (condensate), while steam continued to come in and the temperature of the metal cylinder slowly rose. Eventually the cylinder got hot, condensation would cease, and the cylinder space would again be full of steam to be condensed by another cold water spray.

One imagines that a fair bit of trial and error was necessary to find out just how to adjust valves so that the steam supply was cut off at the correct time, the right amount of condensing water sprayed in at the right instant, etc.

One obvious way to prevent this premature condensation would be not to make the cylinder so cold in the first place. He even made wooden cylinders, which would retain more heat, and less would be required to heat them up following the condensing phase. But that really didn't work, for reasons which he would only have been able to explain with his understanding of the very newly developing thermodynamic theory. [ref 2, Turning Points p86].

If he did only this, the cylinder would then be operating at a higher temperature, and consequently there would be less vacuum when the condensation process finished.  The basic thermodynamics here is that water boils (and water vapour condenses) at a lower temperature if the pressure is reduced. Putting it another way, if you want low pressure in the cylinder, which you obviously do, keep the temperature low - the nearer to 0 degrees C the better.

To recap, the practical problem was that the cylinder had to be cooled to the maximum extent to produce the highest vacuum, and yet this cold cylinder caused a great waste of steam (and therefore fuel) when it was again filled prior to the power stroke. He could see that he had a no-win situation. It made no sense to require the cylinder to be as cold as possible at the end of the condensation phase, and as hot as possible when steam was admitted, because these two points were at practically the same time in the process.

It took two years for the inspiration to strike! Here is the way he described the moment in May 1765:

Watt s Real Inspiration:

.. it was in the Green of Glasgow, I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon... I was thinking upon the engine... the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body, it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication was made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it and would there be condensed without cooling the cylinder. [4], p73.

In other words, while the two processes were contiguous in time, they could be separated in space. Thus the idea of a separate condenser was conceived, and implemented. A sketch reproduced below shows the new arrangement. (Cardwell, Turning Points in Western Technology .[2] p87

Cardwell says that this innovation could only have been made by a person of unusual scientific and technological abilities i.e. one who was familiar with the applicable science of the time. If you were listening very carefully to the James Burke video, you will have heard that Watt's innovation was very much due to Professor Black's discovery of latent heat. Black was a professor at Glasgow university, and there is no doubt that Watt learned a lot from him. But Cardwell very firmly and convincingly rejects the legend that it was Professor Black's discovery of latent heat that led to these improvements. For an engineer, it is not enough to know what the problem is. He/she has to find a way to solve it. Latent heat was certainly involved in the condensation process, but that knowledge was not necessary (and probably not specifically helpful) to make the innovative step to a separate condenser.

Due to that improvement on Newcomen's engine, the efficiency was greatly increased. But he did not stop there. He also added a pump to keep the condenser clear of air and water, insulated the cylinder to prevent heat loss, and then introduced steam above the piston (but still only at atmospheric pressure) to prevent cooling of the cylinder as the piston descended. The picture (Clark, p75)[4] shows several of the features Watt developed over the next few years, including the planet and sun gear, the centrifugal governor and the parallel linkage. In fact, his patent in 1769 pretty well sowed up the steam engine business for years to come.

It is interesting to note in passing that this legitimate protection of his invention had a predictable effect on innovation in the area - at least by other inventors.  Watt's invention eventually  so dominated the technology that there was a reluctance for users to accept  new ones, for example the advantages of higher pressures, although there were limitations due to materials and manufacturing technique in that area.

But Watt did not get rich yet. The new machine was more efficient, and used about one third of the coal of the old Newcomen, but was also more expensive.  But he was a very poor salesman, and apparently was a very poor manager of an enterprise. He did not like dealing with the people he had to interact with in order to make it work, or the business "sharks" of the time. [4] The pattern is not unfamiliar today. He found it hard to make a living at the invention business. So he put it all aside, and got work surveying for the network of canals which were now being built across the country.

But in 1773 he formed a partnership with Matthew Boulton, a successful Birmingham businessman. Two engines of Watt's design were built at Bolton's factory in Birmingham, and installed for customers. They were an immense success, and the Boulton and Watt company never looked back. Boulton boasted to a famous visitor (James Boswell, biographer to Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer) to his factory: "I sell here, sir,  what all the world desires - power ."

It is indeed interesting to note how engineering (and engineers) was beginning to develop a mystique and even a romance in those days..

Listen to Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832, Ivanhoe ,etc.) talking about Watt among the businessmen.  The public is far less inclined to be romantic about the profession today:

Sir Walter Scott on James Watt: amidst this company stood Mr Watt, the man whose genius discovered the means of multiplying our natural resources to a degree perhaps even beyond his own stupendous powers of calculation... this potent commander of the elements - this abridger of time and space - this magician, whose cloudy machinery has produced a change in the world, the effects of which, extraordinary as they are, are perhaps only now beginning to be felt...

Apply innovation questions:

What problem was being solved? - Why was the Newcomen engine burning so much coal? -Having found that out, how could it be improved?

What new science did it depend on? -Not much. The physical properties of steam..

Did the demand exist, or was it developed? The problem was there for all the operators of Newcomen's engines. But the owners were not eager to buy an expensive solution. Demonstrations were necessary. (We call this technology push , and it is not in favour today, at least not at public expense.) An innovative way was found to charge customers. Boulton and Watt charged one third of the value of the coal that the new machine saved the customer. He even invented an attachment which measured the steam used, and therefore the coal burned. Demand was developed very efficiently, and profitably. An excellent example of the value of making a good business partnership.

Was the scientific and/or engineering establishment supportive? They were hardly involved until the success was evident, and then there were many trying to take credit.

Was this incremental, or a new concept? Certainly it built on Newcomen's development. But the rearrangement to make the condenser separate was sufficiently radical to constitute a new concept.

What science and or technology followed? An immense amount. It is sometimes said that the science of thermodynamics owes far more to James Watt than ever Watt owed to thermodynamics. Truer words were never spoken. It was a well educated but rather obscure French engineer who really put the scientific theory in place.. Sadi Carnot (1794-1832) His major publication was in 1824. Note that Watt died in 1819, so he never had the benefit of the science of thermodynamics to develop his great innovation.


We should not leave the era of steam without talking a little of the many developments that went on after Watt's time and some even during his lifetime.

High pressure steam

We have seen that Watt's steam engines were essentially atmospheric engines , since the steam served only to produce a partial vacuum under the piston by virtue of its condensation. Those engines came to be classified as condensation engines . In spite of the fact that it was the condensation engine which was the norm from Newcomen's time to beyond Watt, it would be most incorrect to assume that the fact that steam pressure could do work had gone undiscovered. In fact the knowledge is quite ancient. The idea of putting steam on top of a piston and using the expansive properties and then discharging it to the atmosphere was around before Watt was born in 1736.

Jacob Leupold, an inventor in Saxony, published a description of a "high pressure steam engine" in 1725. (Dickinson p92) [6]. Even Captain Savery, whom we have already talked about,  used steam pressure to blow water up the exhaust pipe of his apparatus, although his machine did not even have a piston.

Watt was well aware of the fact that steam pressure could do work. Apparently, he just did not think a device could be reasonably designed to use it which would be superior to the condensation engine. Throughout his very successful years of domination of the steam engine business, say from 1765 to 1800, he resisted the notion of high pressure steam. According to Dickenson, Watt's assistant William Murdock made a model of a high pressure engine in 1785, but it was "suppressed at birth".  Watt's patent expired by 1800, but tradition held sway, and the rotative beam engine "continued to flourish like the green bay tree".

This scepticism regarding high pressure steam was not without foundation. The main problem was that materials and manufacturing technology were not far enough advanced to reliably construct boilers for pressures of four or five atmospheres (say 60 psi), and to make the engine components and control systems to handle the dangerous vapour.

But the high pressure engine had some real advantages. It was smaller, lighter, much easier to construct, and therefore much cheaper to build, although not to run. Two early pioneers in the development of the high pressure engine were Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) in England, and Oliver Evans (1755-1819) in the USA. Although a bit younger, Trevithick was a contemporary of Watt (recall that Watt died in 1819).

Richard Trevithick was a Cornishman and mine "engineer". Dickenson describes him as having been "brought up in the school of practical experience." He first worked on making a better boiler. He then submerged the steam cylinder in the boiler, which kept it hot, and invented a way to distribute steam to it. When the piston had been driven down, a valve opened and the expanded steam vented to the atmosphere. Inertia carried the piston back to the top of the cylinder for the next burst of steam. See Dickenson p94 for a picture of Trevithick's "puffer", as it existed in 1805.

Trevithick saw that he could use this small light engine to power road transport. Of course the roads were not built for this kind of machine, which would have been quite heavy, and he had many mishaps. But he became sufficiently successful that he applied for a patent in 1802: Steam Engines- Improvements in the construction thereof, and Application thereof for driving Carriages. He made several trip in the London area to show off his road machine. He also was a pioneer in rail locomotives, but other names such as Stevenson (father George and son Robert) are more prominent there.

Trevithick apparently gave up the railroad business and  went to Peru where there were high altitude mines needing pumping. Atmospheric engines were not very useful there, (why not?) and his high-pressure technology was very appropriate. He apparently did well, according to Dickenson .. "To riches beyond the dreams of avarice", but returned to England and apparently died penniless. (Walker,  Great Engineers, p270) [5]

The application of the property of creating a vacuum upon condensing re-emerges with the steam turbine, which exists today. In a way, the old condensing engine still lives, although it is not reciprocating.

The development of steam power transformed the way in which work was done, led to the creation of railroads, and generally brought us into the industrial age. It also brought into existence the professional engineer, and engineering societies. There is much more and many more people we could talk about.. e.g. John Smeaton, (1724-1792) pioneer founder of engineering institutions, and Matthew Murray, (1765-1826) mechanical engineer, who organized production and improved Watt's engine, was probably the first to apply it to ships, and became the competitor of the then powerful Boulton and Watt; Henry Maudsley, (1771-1831) creator of the machinist's lathe, and master mechanic; and many, many more.

(Part 1a: Newcomen and Watt)

1. Dissenters were people who would not conform to the established English church. They were denied certain rights, e.g. standing for parliament.

2. My main sources will be Donald Cardwell, Turning Points in Western Technology, Science History Publication, New York, 1972, and his Fontana History of Technology, Fontana Press, London, 1994.

3. Rolt, L. T. C.  Great Engineers, G. Bell and Sons, 1962.

4. Clark, Ronald. W. Works of Man, Viking, New York, 1985.

5. Walker, Derek. Great Engineers,  Academy St Martins, 1987

6. Dickinson, H. W.  A Short History of the Steam Engine. Frank Cass and Co. 1963.

Last modification: 30 Jan 2001. G R Peters