Thomas Newcomen
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Newcomen's legacy
More than three hundred years have passed since Thomas Newcomen's first known atmospheric steam-powered engine began pumping in 1712 near Dudley in the West Midlands. It was an astonishing feat — nobody then or later invented a comparable machine. Surprisingly, the first proper biography of Newcomen did not appear until 1963, written by L.T.C. Rolt. However, in the conclusion, Rolt writes:
"With no capital, no machine tools and no text books to help him, Newcomen, captaining a team of craftsmen on the site, succeeded in building a machine so masterly in design that, in its broad essentials, it endured for nearly two hundred years. It was a feat without parallel. His was a truly archetypal invention, so sound in principle that, once conceived, it formed an indestructible foundation upon which posterity could confidently build. By first showing the world how power could be harnessed by means of cylinder and piston, Thomas Newcomen pointed the way forward which mankind has followed from that day to this with the astounding results that we now see all around us."
We also have the contemporary opinion of mining agent John Spedding (1685-1758), who wrote in 1718 of the engines at Whitehaven colliery, "... there was nothing that would do their business so well and be less liable to accidents than the engine — 'tis the cheapest safest and the best way of keeping the colliery dry".
Thomas Savery's extended 'fire engine' patent, which covered Newcomen's engines, expired in 1733, freeing the users of atmospheric engines from annual royalties. Newcomen had died four years earlier, so did not benefit from this though the value of his engines in pumping water from deep mines continued long afterwards.
At least 104 'Newcomen engines', as they came to be called, had been built by the time the patent expired. The majority were erected in Britain but at least twelve went to Europe between 1721 and 1732 — three each in Hungary and France, two in Belgium and one each in Germany, Austria, Spain and Sweden. The brass cylinder on the largest of these was 914mm in diameter and 2.74m long. It was constructed in 1726-27 by Marten Triewald at the Dannemora Mines in Stockholm, Sweden.
The first Newcomen engine to reach America did so in September 1753, in the care of Josiah Hornblower (c.1729-1809, son of Newcomen's associate Joseph Hornblower). It was set to work in March 1755 at a copper mine in North Arlington, New Jersey. It would be rebuilt twice with new cylinders (said to be 760mm in diameter) and continue operating until the early 19th century when the mine was abandoned.
Later engineers sought to improve upon the efficiency of the engine, rather than reinvent it. In 1775, John Smeaton (1724-1792) worked on the 1.83m diameter cylinder Newcomen engine at Chacewater in Cornwall, improving its effifiency by more than seventy percent to 56.7kW. James Watt Sr (1736-1819) rebuilt the same engine in 1778 with a 1.6m diameter cylinder. Again in 1775, Richard Trevithick Sr (c.1735-97) more than doubled the performance of a 1.14m diameter cylinder engine at Dolcoath Mine, which was improved further in 1799 by his son Richard Trevithick (1771-1833), later inventor of the steam locomotive.
Newcomens engines continued to be built to THomas Newcomen's original design for many years after his death, even when James Watt's engine with a separate condenser was patented (No. 913) on 9th January 1769. In fact, more Newcomen engines were built during the last 30 years of the 18th century than Watt engines.
The last working example in the West of England was located at South Liberty colliery, Bedminster, Bristol. It had been erected in around 1750, with a 1.68m diameter cylinder, and a power output of 39.3kW. It was still pumping in 1895 but was scrapped in 1900.
The last operational example in Britain still exists, amazingly still in its original location at Elsecar New Colliery in South Yorkshire, and is to be brought back to working condition (last checked early 2016). It was erected in 1794-95 and worked continuously until 1923, and briefly in 1928, and was still operational into the 1950s.
In 1920, the UK's Newcomen Society (now Newcomen: the International Society for the History of Engineering and Technology, was founded in London by a group of senior engineers, Science Museum curators and members of the Patent Office. It is the oldest society in the world specialising in the history of engineering and technology, and has published many papers on Newcomen-related subjects, amongst a plethora of other topics.
Almost two centuries passed before Thomas Newcomen was memorialised in Dartmouth in Devon, his birthplace. In 1921, a plinth was erected in the town gardens on Royal Avenue, Dartmouth, and a plaque unveiled at the site of the Newcomen house in Higher Street. In 1953, a memorial plaque was placed in the former Baptist church on Chapel Street (former Meeting House Lane).
The Newcomen Memorial Engine was re-erected in 1964 in a former electricity substation on Mayors Avenue in the town. It came from Griff Colliery near Nuneaton, West Midlands, and is likely to have been constructed by Newcomen himself in 1714 (rebuilt in 1725 with a 559mm diameter cast iron cylinder). It also worked at Hawkesbury near Coventry until 1913 and was brought to Devon in 1963. It seems appropriate that something of Newcomen's handiwork has returned to his home.
introduction  •  early years  •  ironmongery and steam  •  first atmospheric engine  •  engines everywhere  •  Baptist faith  •  final years  •  legacy  •  sources
All items by Thomas Newcomen  •  Everything built ... 1664 - 1729
main reference  Transactions of the Newcomen Society

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Newcomen Engine
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Plaque, Dartmouth
The plinth and plaques erected in 1921, Royal Avenue, Dartmouth. The laurels wreaths were placed here by Dartmouth Council and the Newcomen Society as part of the 300th anniversary celebrations.
Photo: Eleanor Knowles
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The Newcomen Beam Engine at Elsecar, South Yorkshire — the last operational example, and the only engine still in its original location. It was erected in 1795 by John Bargh of Chesterfield, and operated commercially until 1923. At its peak it drew 600 gallons of water a minute. Now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, it is to be restored to its original state.
© Paul Buckingham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
The Newcomen Memorial Engine
Details (above and below) of the Newcomen Memorial Engine, re-erected in 1964 in Dartmouth. The engine came from Griff Colliery in the West Midlands, and is likely to have been constructed by Newcomen himself in 1714 (rebuilt in 1725 with a 559mm diameter cast iron cylinder).
Photos: Eleanor Knowles
The Newcomen Memorial Engine