Steam-driven machines have been around for hundreds of years and represent a tried-and-true concept that is still used today. As Australia’s leading boiler service specialists, we think it’s important for our customers to understand the origins of this revolutionary technology. From 1st century Greek civilisation to the Boulton-Watt engine — let’s take a look at the important history of steam engines.
1st century — The Aeolipile (Heron’s engine)
What is also known to be the world’s first steam engine, the Aeolipile was created during the 1st century by a Greek named Heron. The Aeolipile consisted of a sphere with two cylindrical exhausts angled in different directions; the sphere was connected and suspended above a kettle via two pipes — which would heat water and force steam to flow through the connecting pipes into the sphere.
The steam blowing out of the two exhausts would spin the sphere — displaying one of the first examples of reactive force. Heron’s engine did not serve any known practical uses but was simply an (at the time) impressive feat of engineering and the precursor to the boilers we know and use today.
17th century — flooded mines and the first practical applications
As coal mining became prominent in Europe, deeper mines were dug, resulting in water sources being found and flooding said mines. This is where the first practical use of a steam engine arose as Spanish inventor Jerónimo de Ayanz patented a machine that used steam to propel the water out of the mines in Guadalcanal, Seville. Later in the century, English inventor Thomas Savery patented a machine for the same purpose that also relied on steam; Savery’s model leveraged cylinders and pistons and, by 1705, his first working steam engine had been created.
Unfortunately, this iteration was not without its issues and it wasn’t long until another inventor, Thomas Newcomen, came along and remedied the flaws in Savery’s machine with a design that used atmospheric-level steam pressure (as opposed to requiring accumulated steam pressure). Newcomen’s design was used for a number of decades in the 18th century but was not very efficient, constantly requiring cold and hot water to cool and heat the steam cylinder.
18th century — the industrial revolution
James Watt is a name well known in the boiler industry as he is the Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer known for improving Newcomen’s steam engine; these changes are said to be a vital part of the industrial revolution. Watt formulated these advances in 1756 but was unable to implement them until 1776 after he met an English manufacturer, Matthew Boulton, who was committed to using steam engines for a variety of applications and had the financial backing that Watt required.
What is known as the Boulton-Watt engine utilised a double-acting (initially a single-acting) rotative engine with an independent condenser capable of maintaining a constant temperature (solving the continuous requirement for water in Newcomen’s machine). This engine was also twice as powerful due to a parallel motion mechanism, allowed operators to control its speed with a centrifugal governor device and leveraged a new gearing system that permitted linear motion to be converted into rotative motion. The Boulton-Watt engine was revolutionary and was used for all sorts of applications over the next few centuries including the powering of factories, mills and breweries.
20th century — water-tube boilers and becoming the modern machine
In 1766, the first water-tube boiler was built and patented by John Blakey; this was improved upon periodically over the next century. Two powerhouses of the late 19th and early 20th century, The Babcock & Wilcox Company and The Stirling Boiler Company, merged in 1907 and rebranded The Babcock & Wilcox H-type boiler to the H-type Stirling — which was capable of producing up to 50,000 pounds of steam per hour.
Boilers began to be constructed in the 1920s and ‘30s with flat studded tube walls and loose tube walls; both of these tube walls increased the heating surface via different means. As industry grew in the 1900s, so too did the need for more complex and powerful boilers — many of which were developed to meet specific requirements. Today, there are several different types of boilers, each of which is suitable for a variety of applications across multiple industries.
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