Man has been using steam to power appliances since the late 1690s and perhaps the earliest steam powered gadget was the water pump by Thomas Savery in 1696.
Two years later, Savery was granted the licence for his invention, the steam engine which was a simple machine based on the design of the pressure cooker (in 1679)
Savery teamed up with Thomas Newcomen a few years later, and in 1705 they made the steam engine they named “fire engine”.
Newcomen teamed up with another inventor, John Calley to build their first engine that was used to pull water out of mines. This was one of the best pieces of technology during the 1700s.
James Watt played a huge role in improving the Newcomen engine so much that soon that the Watt engine was far better.
The main improvement was that the Watt engine’s condenser was able to cool off, even while the cylinder was still hot. Newcomen’s engine did not have this feature.
Watt’s contribution got the Industrial Revolution going, and he was such a huge influence that the unit of power “Watt” was named after him.
So how does this great steam engine work? The steam engine is powered by heat, which converts the heat into steam energy through a mechanical process.
The steam engine is an external combustion engine, where the fuel is burned outside the cylinder to produce power.
The basic steam engine has six parts; the boiler, a safety valve, a cylinder, a steam reservoir, a piston, and a drive wheel.
The heat that powers the engine is got through burning coal in a firebox, which in turn heats the water (stored in a tender) into high pressure steam.
This steam then passes through the boiler in steam pipes right into the steam reservoir. A slide valve (like a little cap) opens and shuts from two openings one after another to make sure that steam does not pass through both openings together.
When this valve opens, steam enters it and powers the piston, which makes the wheel turn a complete cycle.
A heavy drive wheel (like a steering wheel) is fixed onto a shaft on the engine and the driver controls the speed of the engine, while extra steam is released through the chimney.
Today, as technology has improved electric trains, which are more environmentally friendly (because they do not release fumes into the atmosphere), have replaced steam engines.