"The State of The World" Number 43
Complete Index Of All Issues
Steam Power - Planes and Trains and Automobiles
Steam engines harness the power of steam pressure. Steam engines are external combustion engines in which the heat source is in a separate chamber from the working mechanism of the engine (unlike the internal combustion engine in which the heat source is within the working mechanism of the engine).
The power of steam has been recognized for thousands of the years - likely first discovered from simple cooking pots. The ancient Greek and Roman aeolipile likely took its steam turbine design from those observations - water was boiled by a fire under the lower tank which then sent steam up through the hollow legs of the turbine ball before existing through the directional jet nozzles in the ball.
Over the centuries, the power of steam was utilized in numerous ways.
English engineer Thomas Savery (1650-1715) invented the first commercial steam-powered water pump, a powerful "engine" that was used first for mine drainage but soon made public water supply conveniently available. It pumped water by means of the vacuum created by condensing steam. Bento de Moura of Portugal (1702-1766) later made further improvements to Savery's original design.
Steam power continued to be used primarily for water pumps, but by the late 1700s it began to be used for powering machinery. James Watt (1736-1819) of Scotland became one of the most well-known of the steam-power inventors of that time primarily because of his development of a separate condenser that used atmospheric pressure to force a piston into the vacuum created by condensing steam, rather than using of the pressure of expanding steam to power the piston directly.
Steam powered vehicle engines soon followed. Rail locomotives developed rapidly over the 1800s. The first "road locomotive" (automobile) appeared after the 1860s (but were often outlawed because "they scared the horses") and the first marine steam engines appeared on ships by around 1900.
Steam engines also powered the first aircraft.
In 1890, Clement Ader of France became the first in the world to fly a powered, controlled aircraft with his Avion - a Latin/French word for bird (13 years later, the famous Wright brothers became the first to fly in the U.S. with their gasoline powered aircraft; see also Who Was The First To Fly?). The English-language word "aviation" itself is from that French name for Ader's steam-powered aircraft, the Avion.