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Thomas Newcomen's Birthday
"[In 18th-century Britain] engineers for the most began as simple workmen, skilful and ambitious but usually illiterate and self-taught. They were either millwrights like Bramah, mechanics like Murdoch and George Stephenson, or smiths like Newcomen and Maudslay."
~ John Desmond Bernal, In Science in History (1969)
If you have mining in your blood or are a fan of the mining-centered Poldark novel series set in 18th century Cornwall, a historic debt of gratitude is owed to those problem-solving engineers and mechanics. English ironmonger and Baptist lay preacher Thomas Newcomen created the first practical fuel-burning "atmospheric engine" in 1712, improving on earlier ideas of Thomas Savery's "steam pump" and Denis Papin's "steam digester". Some of his biggest customers were Cornish tin mine owners, who faced considerable difficulties with flooding as mines became progressively deeper. Standard methods to remove the water - manual pumping or teams of horses hauling buckets on a rope - were slow and expensive. His first working engine was installed at a coal mine at Dudley Castle in Staffordshire. Newcomen engines were expensive to run but became very successful. At the time of his death in 1729, there were at least 100 of his engines in Britain and across Europe! Newcomen's engine design was gradually replaced after 1775 in areas where coal was expensive (especially in Cornwall) by an improved design, invented by Scotsman James Watt, in which the steam was condensed in a separate condenser. There are still examples of surviving Newcomen engines in the Science Museum, London, England and the Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan US, amongst other places!
Liebig's Extract of Meat Company Trading Card - Thomas Newcomen's Engine, 1712
This tartan was designed to commemorate the invention of the steam engine by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and to mark the importance of the combustion engine in the last three centuries.
Thomas Newcomen (February 1664 – 5 August 1729) was an English inventor who created the first practical steam engine for pumping water.
The Newcomen engine held its place without material change for about 75 years, spreading gradually to more areas of the UK and mainland Europe. At first brass cylinders were used, but these were expensive and limited in size. New iron casting techniques allowed bigger cylinders to be used, up to about 6 feet (1.8 m) in diameter by the 1760s. Experience led to better construction and minor refinements in layout. Its mechanical details were much improved by John Smeaton, who built many large engines of this type in the early 1770s; his improvements were rapidly adopted. By 1775 about 600 Newcomen engines had been built, although many of these had worn out before then, and been abandoned or replaced.
The Newcomen Engine was not an efficient machine, although it was probably as complicated as engineering and materials techniques of the early 18th century could support. Much heat was lost when condensing the steam, as this cooled the cylinder. This did not matter so much at collieries, where unsaleable small coal (slack) was available, but significantly increased the mining costs where coal was not readily available, as in Cornwall.
From the official register:
Colours: black recalls the iron from which the engines and boilers are made as well as the coal and oil that they burn, its dominance in the tartan gives a dark industrial appearance; red represents fire; white represents steam and smoke; and blue represents the air (oxygen) required for combustion as well as water.
For more on the history of steam engines, click the vintage illustration of the Newcomen engine being used in a coal mine.