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.
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!
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
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 imperialismExtract from James Watt biography on University of Glasgow story