Full Steam Ahead
If you know where to look, many engines that powered the Industrial Revolution are still alive and well today
In 1763 Scottish mathematical instrumentation expert James Watt begged his friends at Glasgow College’s Natural Philosophy Department to recall their novel mechanical gadget—a Newcomen steam engine—from a London repair establishment. The awkward, rickety device soon arrived at his shop. It had a rectangular, open wood frame, a boiler the size of a teakettle, and a single piston with a six-inch stroke. Watt spent one decade developing a condensation system that kept the water in the cylinder at a constant boiling temperature, and another developing the rotary engine, which harnessed the piston to a stabilizing pantograph, a jointed parallelogrammatic frame, which converted its uneven strokes into a constant, parallel motion. In 1781 Watt bet the farm, mortgaging his existing patents to obtain funding for the rotary engine. It paid off.
By the 1790s Watt was receiving hundreds of orders for his rotary steam engine from European and American coal mines and manufacturers of flour, sugar, corn, cotton, paper, copper, and iron. “In such applications, one hundred weight of coals will produce as much mechanical power as is equal to the work of ten men for ten hours,” bragged Watt’s business partner, Matthew Boulton, in February 1781. The results were revolutionary: industries reliant on waterpower could move from streamsides and multiply their productivity; those dependent on easily tired human and animal muscle found nearly inexhaustible sources of power. The steam engine found applications in hundreds of fields; more than any other single invention, it spurred the Industrial Revolution.
By 1869 steam locomotives, pulling long trains of cars, could travel from New York to San Francisco in seven days, a journey that had taken a month by stagecoach just a year earlier. During the Civil War, steam engines powered a new breed of innovative “ironclads” that overnight ended the 2,000-year era of sailing. Steamboats plied the continent’s interior on the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Great Lakes, as well as on the coasts. Farmers across the United States banded together to buy steam-powered tractors that cut their threshing time by more than half.
The fuel-efficient and easier-to-maintain internal combustion engine would soon render these engines obsolete. But the steam engine had catalyzed profound changes in technology and invention the world over. “It would be superfluous to attempt to enumerate the benefits which [the steam engine] has conferred upon the human race, for such an enumeration would include an addition to every comfort and the creation of almost every luxury that we now enjoy,” wrote Robert H. Thurston, the first professor of mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology, in the introduction to his 1878 book A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine.
Most signs of this time—the Age of Steam—are now forgotten, but we bring you five stories of dedicated preservationists who have reached deeply into the past and brought it alive again by restoring and re-creating steam engines of yore. In creating their tributes to steam technology, they have kneeled in grease, pored over old manuals, forged parts if they could not find them, and immersed themselves for years in a time gone by. At the end of each story, we provide information about visiting each of these steam machines. We encourage you to stop by, talk with these enthusiasts, and perhaps see and hear these machines running. There are few better ways to understand the nature of technological innovation than to touch and examine the machines that have so changed our history and lives.
We plan on publishing more articles about visiting sites featuring older technologies, and we welcome your suggestions on future topics. Drop us a line at email@example.com .