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A History Of The World: The Birth Of Steam
Andrew Brown
By Andrew Brown
Producer - A History of the World, The Birth Of Steam

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Watch Adam Hart-Davis operate the replica Newcomen engine

There is no statue to him in his home town of Dartmouth, and we don't even know what he looked like, but a little-known Baptist preacher from Devon really did change the world.

The invention of the first steam engine was the single greatest turning point in modern history.

From this one point flows the ability to extract coal from the pits and power the industrial revolution.

While James Watt may have laid claim to the glory and a place in the national consciousness, Thomas Newcomen created the first practical device to harness the power of steam to produce mechanical work.

Now a new BBC South West film presented by Adam Hart-Davis looks at the life and work of that almost forgotten inventor.

Adam Hart-Davis
Adam Hart-Davis' film is on BBC One on 17 May at 19.30

A full-size model of his creation - the small atmospheric engine - is housed at the Dartmouth Tourist Information Centre.

And a replica Newcomen engine can also be seen working in the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley.

Although its first use was in coal-mining areas, Newcomen's engine was also used for pumping water out of the metal mines in his native West Country, such as the tin mines of Cornwall.

By the time of his death, Newcomen and others had installed more than 100 of his engines, not only in the West Country and the Midlands but also in north Wales, near Newcastle and in Cumbria.

Others were built elsewhere in Europe, including France, Belgium, Spain, and Hungary, also at Dannemora, Sweden.

By 1725 the Newcomen engine was in common use in mining, particularly collieries. It held its place with little material change for the rest of the century.

Newcomen, born in 1664, was an ironmonger, and described himself as such to his dying day.

His trade took him to the mines of west Devon and Cornwall and undoubtedly it was here that he witnessed the immense difficulties and dangers of pumping water from mines prone to natural flooding.

Adam Hart Davis
Adam Hart-Davis visits Newcomen's hometown of Dartmouth

In his workshop, accompanied by James Calley, he developed and perfected that very first steam engine.

It was Newcomen who realised that by condensing steam you could form a vacuum and let atmospheric pressure do the rest.

Quite literally the invention of portable power changed everything - no longer was man tied to water, wind and horsepower.

And once you have an engine that can drive pumps, why not drive cranks, looms, wheels, paddles and propellers…

With its boiler, vertical cylinder and piston, and its overhead beam - or great lever - the engine presented for the first time that classic combination of major components which, with refinements, would persist for some 200 years.

A History of the World - The Birth of Steam
BBC One South West 17 May 2010 at 19.30




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