As some of you may recall last autumn we were in Edinburgh, and whilst MrB was researching in the National Library of Scotland I was exploring the National Museum of Scotland. Not that I got very far in my explorations, as I discovered a working Newcome Engine and became transfixed.

Newcomen Engine inside the National Museum of Scotland

Partly because MrB has trained me to be interested in steam engines, but also because I already had in mind the theme for July Squares and at the time I thought this exhibit would make a great squares post. However when I sat down at the computer this week I realised only one photograph could be cropped into a square, and even that didn’t really work. The engine is just too big to square!

So apologies you are going to have to wait until Tuesday for the July Squares Announcement, however hopefully instead today you will enjoy learning more about this engine!

The engine was invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen, an Devonian ironmonger who supplied tools to the local mining industry. Flooding was a major issue in mines around the UK and Europe, and his invention was one of the earliest solutions to pumping water out of the mines. The one at the National Museum of Scotland dates from 1812 and remained in commercial use until 1901. Not sure how many modern machines would work for 90 years, in fact this machine could be said to have worked for over a hundred years as it was made using parts from a 1781 Newcomen Engine!

A gif showing how the Newcomen Engine works, see accompanying text for description

The engine operates by drawing steam into a cylinder. Then cold water is injected which condenses the steam (changes the steam back into water) thereby creating a partial vacuum. Atmospheric pressure can then acts on the piston, pushing it down, and the rocking beam above then raises the plunger in the pump. It then all happens again.

The diagram shows this principal in action. Steam is show as pink and water as blue. The valves move from closed (red) to open (green).

Within 20 years there were more than hundred of his engines in the UK, partly because no one at that time had designed anything better and partly because of Newcomen’s connections. He was a Baptist lay preacher and had strong links through the church to other inventors and engineers.

However whilst cheap it was not the most efficient of machines, requiring significant amount of fuel to create the steam and heat the cylinder again and again.

In 1763 James Watt, a Scottish mechanical engineer and chemist identified the inefficiencies when repairing a Newcomen engine for the University of Glasgow, but it was to take him until 1765 before he came up with a solution and then another ten years before he had a working full sized enhancement. By 1776 the first Watt engines were installed and working in commercial enterprises, and his invention is considered by some to be “the mechanical workhorse of the Industrial Revolution”. He certainly became known as the inventor of steam engines, and there are statues of him throughout the UK. The one in Westminster Abbey goes as far to say

James Watt . . . . . enlarged the resources of his country, increased the power of man, and rose to an eminent place amongst the most illustrious followers of science and the real benefactors of the world.

statue of James Watt by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey in Westminster Abbey

However despite Watt’s scientific reputation and the efficiency of his engine, the Newcomen engine continued to be made and used as demonstrated by this one at the National Museum of Scotland. The museum thinks the Caprington Colliery, Ayrshire ordered this Newcomen rather than a more efficient Watt because they had fuel in abundance and preferred a one-off payment rather than an annual licence fee for the Watt engine.

Now what I totally forgot to ask of the wonderful curator who was running the engine when I was there, was how on earth they got it inside the museum. Fortunately however the museum website has the answer – they completely rebuilt it inside during the construction of the new gallery. Almost as inventive as the engine itself!

Having written all of the above and celebrated the achievements of both Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, it occurred to me is that their whole story. Were these men of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution truly great men? Statues and exhibitions after all generally only tell the story that those who commissioned it want to tell. So I did a little bit more research, and I didn’t have to search far. James Watt’s family profited through trade in goods produced by slaves, and Watt’s machinery was used on plantations in the Caribbean that owned and enslaved Black people. He did in 1791 cancel an steam engine order to Haiti by a French business because of slavery, but it was during the Haitian revolution and so the horrors of slavery were probably too much for him to ignore. No other orders were cancelled by him because of slavery as far as I know.

I have not found any evidence that Thomas Newcomen was directly or indirectly involved in the slave trade, and many English Baptists in the late 17th century did campaign against slavery. However I have only done a tiny amount of research, and what I have done highlights in the early part of the century Baptists were generally silent about slave trade and that slave owners were not just landowners. So I can offer no opinion on Thomas Newcomen, he may have been against slavery but was silent like many of us have been on racial inequalities and racism. Complicit no more!

We cannot celebrate the achievements of James Watt and other great men and women of the Enlightenment without remembering their society’s complicity in race slavery and imperialism

Extract from James Watt biography on University of Glasgow story

45 thoughts

  1. My grandfather loved steam engines being in marine engineering and an ocean yachting man. My whole ancestry from that side were mariners well into the centuries and the steam engine was a really big deal. He had one that he put out year after year during Christmas and started up. When he passed my Dad took over the tradition. It was a small tabletop so all of us could watch it. Thanks for jarring that memory! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They are amazing things steam engines – the imagination and skill to create the first ones, quite extraordinary

      Thanks for the link – encouraging to see. If only other institutions were as being as honest about their own history, and taking similar steps going forward to amend

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An intriguing hint of what is to brighten our July!
    And a fascinating post, Becky. Whatever this tells us is that history has much to teach us if we dig deep. That we must do, in the hope we will learn and make changes going forward.

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  3. Interesting stuff. I always liked steam engines of one kind or another. I think it’s great that they have one in the museum.. I agree with Margaret that there are plenty of people whose reputation wouldn’t stand too much scrutiny, but that could be said of people from any time period. I wear clothes and shoes and buy things, and I often don’t know where those things come from or the conditions the workers who produced them work under. I doubt my life would stand up to much scrutiny.

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    1. So very true about reputations. I certainly don’t expect anyone to be perfect as I am no where near either! However what the past few weeks and months have highlighted to me it how important it is to ask the questions . . . . we need to have the whole story and no just the one depicted on a plinth or in certain history books.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree, but what’s interesting to me is why the George Floyd incident has provoked such a strong response worldwide, one that might actually result in significant changes that stick. Why didn’t that happen with the myriad of previous well-publicized brutalities? I think perhaps the virus played a role, most people confined, stressed, out of their comfort zones. Perhaps this incident struck closer to the bone.


      2. I think you are right those are some of the reasons, as well as how he died, and the fact the 8minutes was filmed. Just awful.

        For me the incident in NYC also really struck a chord. Brought home the horrendous daily microaggressions Blacks have to deal with.

        Long past time for change, long past time for whites to truly understand and to start addressing the issues


  4. Indeed. When you start to unpick that period of history, there are few names who are not at some level complicit, and it becomes very complicated. When is ignorance an adequate excuse? That apart, this is a magnificent structure which engaged us too when we visited. I wasn’t clever enough to be puzzled about how it got into the building!

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    1. Certainly does become complicated when we unpick, but at least we are now all recognising we need to unpick πŸ™‚

      and hee hee re getting it into the building. Don’t think it was being clever just my mind works in random ways. In country houses I am always more interested in the servants lives than those who owned it!

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      1. Have had a lot of that this week as being doing so much festival stuff. Not sure which way up I am . . .really sorry didn’t make the chat yesterday. Spent afternoon in car driving or sitting whilst MrB moved books. He had his mask on everytime he was out of the car!

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