An outstanding feature of the Industrial Revolution was the advance in power technology at the beginning of this period; the major sources of power available were animate energy and the power of wind and water, the only exception being the atmospheric steam engines that had been installed for pumping purposes, mainly in coal mines.
The use of steam power was exceptional and remained so for most industrial purposes until well into the 19th century.
Steam did not simply replace other sources of power: it transformed them.
The same sort of scientific enquiry that led to the development of the steam engine was also applied to the traditional sources of inanimate energy, with the result that both waterwheels and windmills were improved in design and efficiency.
Numerous engineers contributed to the refinement of waterwheel construction, and by the middle of the 19th century new designs increased the speed of the waterwheel and prepared the way for the emergence of the water turbine.
The revolution in communications had a great deal to do with the development of steam-driven power and locomotion. Scientists, such as Robert Boyle of England (who worked on atmospheric pressure), Otto von Guericke (the vacuum), and Denis Papin (pressure vessels), developed the science of steam power.
Technologists Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomer were pioneers of steam engines. Savery’s apparatus condensed steam in a vessel, to create a partial vacuum.
The first commercially successful steam engine was invented by Newcomen. Newcomen’s engines were heavy fuel consumers, useful mainly in the British coalfields where they kept deep mines clear of water and fulfilled a pressing need of 18th century British industry.
Water power and wind power would now gradually be replaced by a mechanism with tremendous potential. Its most important application, the steam railway engine, would (in tandem with modern metallurgy) transform the basis of transport and communications the world over.
Steam became the characteristic power source of the British Industrial Revolution. Little development took place in the Newcomen atmospheric engine until James Watt patented a separate condenser in 1769, but from that point onward the steam engine underwent continuous improvements.
Watt’s condenser separated the two actions of heating the cylinder with hot steam and cooling it to condense the steam for every stroke of the engine. By keeping the cylinder permanently hot and the condenser permanently cold, a great economy could be affected.
The Birmingham industrialist Matthew Boulton, helped convert the idea into a commercial success. Between 1775 and 1800, the Boulton and Watt partnership produced some 500 engines, which despite their high cost were eagerly acquired by the tin-mining industrialists of Cornwall and other power users who needed a reliable source of energy.
Boulton and Watt introduced many important refinements, by converting the engine from a single-acting into a double-acting machine that could be applied to rotary motion. The rotary action engine was adopted by British textile manufacturer Sir Richard Arkwright for use in a cotton mill. Many other industries followed in exploring the possibilities of steam power, and it soon became widely used.
The Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick introduced higher steam pressures in 1802, and the American engineer Oliver Evans built the first high-pressure steam engine in the United States at the same time. High-pressure steam engines became popular in America.
Trevithick made the first successful steam locomotive for a tram in South Wales in 1804. (The age of the railways had to wait for the permanent way and locomotives).
Another consequence of high-pressure steam was the practice of compounding, of using the steam twice or more at descending pressures before it was finally condensed or exhausted. The technique was first applied by Arthur Woolf, a Cornish mining engineer.
A demand for power to generate electricity stimulated new thinking about the steam engine in the 1880s. The problem was that of achieving a sufficiently high rotational speed for the dynamos. Full success in achieving a high-speed engine depended on the steam turbine, a major technological innovation invented by Sir Charles Parsons in 1884.
By passing steam through the blades of a series of rotors of gradually increasing size (to allow for the expansion of the steam) the energy of the steam was converted to very rapid circular motion, which was ideal for generating electricity.
This method still provides a major source of electric power. Even the most modern nuclear power plants use steam turbines because technology has not yet solved the problem of transforming nuclear energy directly into electricity. In marine propulsion, too, the steam turbine remains an important source ‘of power despite competition from the internal-combustion engine.