Steam Power and Factory System

Through major developments by mechanical engineers, the steam engine began to be used in many industrial settings after the Industrial Revolution.

A steam powered train

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This creative technical centre for much of the British economy was born by interactions between companies, to reduce the amount of research time and expense. Industrial Revolution technological advances happened quickly because firms often shared information, which they then could use to create new techniques or products.

First steam engine application

“The miner’s friend”, 1702

The first engine had been used in mines to pump water from deep workings. Constructed and patented in London by Thomas Savery, it was called the “Miner’s Friend”. Early versions used a soldered copper boiler which burst easily at low steam pressures. Later versions with iron boiler were capable of raising water about 46 meters. The steam was first condensed by an external cold water spray once admitted into the cylinder. That created a partial vacuum which drew water up through a pipe from a lower level. Then valves were opened and closed and a fresh charge of steam was applied directly on to the surface of the water. The engine was not a success since it was limited in pumping height and prone to boiler explosions.

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Energy everywhere

Early steam train hauling coal.

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Newcomen introduced the first practical mechanical steam engine, which opened up a great expansion in coal mining by allowing mines to go deeper. Reliable and easy to maintain, this engine had spread to France, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Sweden. With the close collaboration of Matthew Boulton, James Watt incorporated a series of radical improvements which increased engine efficiency by a factor of about five, saving 75% on coal costs. The total power that could be produced by their engines was only a small fraction of the total power generating capacity of waterwheels and windmills in Britain. However, water and wind power were seasonably variable.

Increasing the power

Cornish engine

After the expiration of the Boulton & Watt patent in 1800, the steam engine underwent great increases in power due to the use of higher pressure steam. The development of machine tools, such as the lathe, planing and shaping machines powered by these engines, enabled all the metal parts of the engines to be easily and accurately cut and in turn, made it possible to build larger and more powerful engines. The high-efficiency Cornish engine was developed in the 1810s for pumping mines in Cornwall. It was the result of using the exhaust of a high-pressure engine to power a condensing engine. It became a prevalent model for stationary engines in the industrial sector, was used for pumping the waterways of Pawtucket (Rhode Island) and played an essential role in the expansion of the railroad.

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Blast bellows, steamboats and trains

Steam engines were too powerful for leather bellows, so cast iron blowing cylinders were developed for powering blast bellows. Steam-powered blast furnaces achieved higher temperatures, allowing the use of more lime in iron blast furnace feed. Coal and coke were cheap and abundant fuel.

A ferry boat in New York Harbor, circa 1900.

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Following the advent of the steamboat, the United States saw incredible growth in the transportation of goods and people, which was key in westward expansion. The economic steamboat benefits extended far beyond the construction of the ships themselves, and the goods they transported. These ships led directly to growth in the coal and insurance industries, along with creating demand for repair facilities along the rivers.
Trains could deliver large amounts of goods and raw materials to places far away at a fraction of the cost of travelling by wagon. Railroad tracks became the new means of transportation after the first locomotive was invented.

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