Thomas Newcomen (1663–1729)

Thomas Newcomen, an ironmonger from the port of Dartmouth in Devon, became aware of the difficulties of draining tin and copper mines in the West of England, and devised an effective automatic steam engine, the first example of which appears to have been set to drain a coal mines at Coneygre, Dudley, in 1712. He had regularly purchased iron from forges in the nearby Stour Valley, and had other links with the West Midlands through his Baptist faith. There is a working replica of the engine in the nearby Black Country Museum.

The engine’s piston propelled a balanced beam, to which the pump was attached, by admitting steam at atmospheric pressure into a cylinder. The steam was then condensed by a water jet within the cylinder, allowing the piston to be forced into the cylinder by atmospheric pressure, hence the name atmospheric (as distinct from steam) engine by which it was often known. Newcomen’s engine was deemed to be covered by the patents granted to Thomas Savery (?1650-1715) which were controlled by a consortium until the expiry of the patents in 1733, by which time about a hundred engines had been installed in Britain, and several examples had been built in other countries.

In the second half of the eighteenth century the Newcomen engine, often called the ‘common engine’, formed the basis of the more efficient engine designed by James Watt (1736-1819) but was itself a cheap and reliable source of power within the coalfields where the cost of fuel was negligible, and it did not incur the royalties that had to be paid for using a Watt engine. Construction of new engines therefore continued well into the nineteenth century, even after the Watt engine ceased to be protected by patents in 1800, and some Newcomen engines continued to work well into the twentieth century.

An engine from Hawkesbury near Coventry was re-erected as a memorial to Thomas Newcomen at Dartmouth on the 300th anniversary of his birth in 1963, and an early nineteenth century engine is preserved in situ at Elsecar near Sheffield. Several more are held in museums, and the engine house that accommodated a Newcomen engine built by Martin Triewald in 1727 is preserved at Dannemora.

Tributes to Newcomen’s genius were paid in 1747 by a French visitor to England who wrote: ‘England has more than any other country of those machines so useful to the state which readily multiply men by lessening their work; and  by means of which one man can execute what would take up to thirty without such assistance’, and by a Cornish miner who commented: ‘Mr Newcomen’s invention of the fire engine enabled us to sink our mines to twice the depth we could formerly do by any other machinery’.