Steam train

History of the Steam Engine, Inventor and Evolution

History of the steam engine, inventor and evolution

The first reference to the steam engine is found in the Hellenistic period with the works of Heron of Alexandria. Then there is talk of experiments to take advantage of the expansion of steam. 

It was a hollow metal sphere filled with water, with arms tangential to the outlet hole: when the water is heated, it vaporizes and the water vapor comes out of the holes, through the rotation of the ball itself.

Who Invented the Steam Engine?

Neither a single inventor of the steam engine nor an exact date for the creation of the steam engine can be determined . This is because the historical evolution of the steam engine is very long, and a prototype has not been created at once.

The steam engine has been created slowly and its creation has passed through the hands of many inventors, who have gradually improved it, and have adapted it to the social, economic and political circumstances of each historical period.

First Steam Engine Experiments

In the early seventeenth century, the Giovanni Battista della Porta experiments were able to use the force of steam as a driving force.

Salomon de Caus's engineer also conducted steam engine experiments similar to Della Porta's. In 1615 Alomon Caus published a treatise on his system containing a steam pump.

In more recent times, the first applications of steam can be traced back to the experiments of Denis Papin and his pressure cooker of 1679. In this experiment he went on to come up with ideas on how to develop the use of steam.

Origin of the First Steam Engine

Subsequent experiments to use steam occurred in the early 18th century, especially for pumping water from mines. 

The pumping of the water was carried out by means of the system devised in 1698 by Thomas Savery using the vacuum created by the condensation of steam introduced into a container.

With this experiment it was possible to raise the water to approximately 10 m in height. Furthermore, thanks to the invention of the cylinder-piston system it was possible to convert the energy of steam into a mechanical movement.

Newcomen's Steam Engine

History of the steam engine, inventor and evolutionThe earliest example of industrial application of this concept is the 1705 Thomas Newcomen steam engine. Newcomen's engine was large but not overly powerful and expensive. He could only make a back and forth movement. For this reason, it is used to extract water from the mines.

At first the steam engine worked at atmospheric pressure so it provided very low power and the engines had to be huge. For its installation in self-propelled vehicles, therefore, a smaller and lighter steam engine design for the same power was required.

Appearance of High Pressure Steam Engines

This problem led to the creation of high pressure steam engines. In high pressure steam engines, pressure builds up inside the boiler.

This objective was later achieved with the invention of the external condenser. In the external condenser, the distribution of the drawers and the crank-crank mechanism made it possible to convert the linear movement into a rotational movement.

This feature led to a general use in transportation and industry. The merits of such an event are attributed to the Scottish engineer James Watt in 1765.

Watt's invention had several advantages:

  • Lower cost

  • Smaller dimensions

  • Less power consumption

  • Greater power.

The Steam Engine in Industry

The steam engine, allowed to have a greater power than what could be obtained with the resources available until then. This evolution played a key role in the industrial revolution.

The development of the steam engine has facilitated the extraction and transportation of coal. The reduction of the costs of the exploitation of coal contributes in lowering the costs of the use of the steam engine. The second application of the steam engine was to move bellows in foundries in 1776, while in 1787 it was also used to spin cotton garments.


Published: November 14, 2017
Last review: November 21, 2021