History of the Railroad: Article 1

The History of the American Railroad

“Who Invented the Steam Engine”

The First Practical Uses


     Believe it or not, railways have been around since the Roman Empire. The Romans had built the first railway 150 years before it was ever thought up by the United Kingdom or North America. They used two lines of stone instead of iron for its tracks. The Romans called them tramroads. They used these tramroads to transport coal from their mines to where they would ship it across the known world. These tramroad’s were not regularly used, so they did not garner very much attention. 1



Photo credit: Ethan Doyle White/Wikimedia

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     Also, as the old saying goes, “You can’t put the cart before the horse,” so we cannot put the locomotive before the steam engine.

     Some die hard railroad enthusiast are particular about wordology. The engine is what propels or drives the locomotive. So, to call a locomotive an engine is completely wrong.

     The question stands, who invented the steam engine? Reminds me of the original Star Trek series. Pavel Chekov would always claim Russia had invented stuff that they had not or had used someone else’s ideal. Just as the Italian’s are given credit for inventing the pizza, Greece had.

     In our quest of knowledge, we will see that a lot of people had their hands in the creation, design and development of the steam driven engine. Just as it was with the Romans first developing the railroad tracks, so is the development of the steam engine.

     The evolution of the steam engine started in the first century with a Greek inventor, Hero of Alexandria. He designed the aeolipile or the primitive steam turbine.


"The cut is copied from Hero’s “Spiritalia”, edited by Woodcroft, of London.",

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


     Hero’s aeolipile consisted of a hollow sphere which was mounted on a set of tubes.

     As you can see by the illustration, there is fire underneath the bowl of water to produce the steam. The steam then travels up the pair of hollow pipes filling the sphere with steam. The tubes mounted at the equator of the sphere, the right-angled vents are pointing in the opposite directions of each other releasing the steam, propelling the sphere to turn on its axis.

     The aeolipile was designed as a novelty, something to impress his friends at parties. Although a novelty, it was the first device to transform steam into rotary motion. It wasn’t until the 17th century that someone saw a use for what seemed to be a party favor. They developed a way to harness the power shown by Hero’s aeolipile and use it for practical purposes.

     The first steam engine was designed for a specific purpose. Europeans in the 17th century stopped using wood and started using coal to heat their houses. That meant mines became deeper, trying to keep up with demand.

     One problem was in going deeper, they ran into the problem of mining into a water table. Upon hitting one, the mines would become flooded.           

      A Spanish mine administrator, Jeronimo de Ayanz came up with the idea to use the steam engine to pump out the flooded mines. In 1606 he patented his ideals.  Although he patented his engine first, an Englishman was given credit for inventing the first steam engine. Thomas Savery who was an engineer and inventor, patented an engine that could effectively draw water from the flooded mine.
     Savory got his ideal from an invention of Denis Papin. He was a French-born British physicist who had also invented the pressure cooker.
     With Savery's steam engine, you had a cylinder that is filled with water. Steam is delivered into the cylinder where it displaces the water, causing it to flow out through a one-way valve. When the water was ejected, the cylinder was then sprayed with cool water. Once sprayed it droped the cylinder’s temperature, so the steam was condensed, which created a vacuum inside the cylinder. Once this happened, additional water was pulled up to refill the cylinder. This completeed the pumps cycle. 1

     Savory used these principles, along with using two steam boilers. He developed a nearly continuous system for pumping water from the mine.
     Savory had a good idea, but after some use it became clear, it would only work in shallow water. 2

Illustration of Savery’s pump

ja:de:Bild:Savery pump.gif,

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


     By 1711 the problem with the large demand for coal put a spotlight on the problem with the flooding of the mines. They were left with Savery’s pump, that was inefficient on pumping the deep water.

      Thomas Newcomen’s ironmonger’s business specialized in designing, manufacturing, and selling tools for the mining industry.

     Newcomen attacked the problem, coming up with placing a piston inside the cylinder. Then connecting one end of the cylinder to a pivoting beam. The other end of the pivoting beam was connected to the pump mechanism. They were connected this way so that water was drawn up whenever the beam is tilted up on the pump end.

     The way the system was propelled, the steam was delivered to the piston cylinder. Simultaneously, a counterweight pulled the beam down on the pump end, thus making the piston rise to the top of the steam cylinder.

     As the cylinder filled with steam, cool water was sprayed inside the cylinder. Immediately the steam was condensed, causing the piston to drop. This moved the beam down on the piston end and up on the pump end. This process would keep happening as long as the steam was supplied to the cylinder.

     What was unique with this design? That the water being pumped out was kept separated from the cylinder that created the pumping power. He redesigned the steam engine. He did away with the need for accumulated steam pressure.2

     The efficiency of Savery’s pump was that is was greatly improved upon. Due to Savery. holding an individual patent on all the parts of his steam pump, Newcomen had to collaborate with Savery to get a patent on his piston pump.

Newcomen’s Atmospheric Engine

Emoscopes, CC BY-SA 3.0


via Wikimedia Commons



    This was the first commercially successful machine that used steam to operate a water pump. Although it was a successful, the invention, as with most things, had some problems.


          1. Highly inefficient, it required a constant flow of water to cool the steam cylinder.

          2. It needed a constant energy source to reheat the cylinder.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Despite these flaws. Newcomen’s engine design held up to be the standard for the next 50 years.

     In 1765, James Watts, a Scottish instrument maker, employed by Glasgow University was repairing a small model of Newcomb's engine.

     He was baffled by the amount of steam consumed by the engine. He came up with an ideal to correct its inefficiency.

     The steam cylinder had to be constantly cooled, thereby they had to be reheated.

     He developed a separate condenser that would allow the steam cylinder to be maintained at a constant temperature. This dramatically improved it functionality of the steam engine.

     Due to financial reasons, he could not proceed with his new atmosphere engine. Being presistent, he was able to find financial backing in a partnership with Matthew Bolton in 1776. Bolton was an English manufacturer and engineer who saw Watt's steam engine being used for much more than pumping water from mines.
     With this financial backing, Watt proceeded to develop a single rotative engine along with a separate condenser he had invented.

James Watts’ Atmospheric Steam Engine

Panther, CC BY-SA 3.0


via Wikimedia Commons

     With this improvement, along with his parallel motion mechanism, he doubled the power of the existing steam cylinder.
     With this Bolton-Watt engine also had incorporated another device called the centrifugal governor (or gas pedal) to control the engine speed.
     Also, a new and improved gear system was developed by an employee named William Murdoch. It came to be known as the "sun and planet gearing" which converted reciprocating linear motion into rotative motion. Linear motion means up-and-down are back-and-forth while rotative motion means like a shaft spinning.
     Due to James Watts and William Bolton's vision of a nation powered by steam and their improvements, the United Kingdom quickly followed by America, adapted these ideas.


The Steamboat


     Long before there were other means to transportation besides the horse and wagon, waterways were earth's natural roadways.
     Traveling these waterways had one drawback, they were slow. It all depended on the currents and how much cargo they were carrying. Naturally, man looked at ways to conquer these beasts.

     Years after the Revolutionary War, exploration towards the southeast part of the country boomed. With the westward growth not so far behind.

     During this time, flat bottom keelboats would carry goods on these southern rivers. As they traversed down the river, the currents carried them along. On the way back upriver, it took a lot of sweat and manpower fighting these same currents.

     During the late 1700s and early 1800's, the steamboats were designed and introduced.

     In 1787, John Fitch built and introduced a 45-foot steamboat. At this introduction, the nation was amazed when the steamboat reached the staggering speeds of up to 5 miles per hour.

     To demonstrate his invention, he first sailed the Delaware River. He succeeded and built four more, but they failed due to being too expensive to operate.

     Robert Livingston met Robert Fuller and decided to move to New York and build their version of the steamboat. They were met with success.

     Their first steamboat was the Clermont, which for its maiden voyage, steamed  40 miles on the Hudson River. After their successful demonstration they began regular trips from Albany to New York. They sometimes would carry up to 100 passengers every four days.

Painting by James Bard (1815-1897) and John Bard (1815-1856),

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


     After being put into use, the steamboat transformed river travel and trade.
     Along with the success, there were dangers with this new form of transportation. Explosions topped the list. Then the sinking of the steamboats followed a close second. This may have happened because they used fire onboard a natural fuel source.
     Indian attacks wrapped up the top three. Even though 5 miles per hour seemed fast back then, it was slow. As the steamboat passed by, the Indians could not help themselves but attack these large targets.
     Even with all the afore mentioned issues, the steamboat captured the imagination of the country. It also played an important part in the expansion of the United States.

     In the 1830’s there was only 23 miles of track. This did not offer very much competition. Then by the 1880’s there were 93,000 miles of track signaling the end of its dominance. 4




     In 1852, Henri Giffard, a French engineer designed a 3-horsepower steam powered dirigible (Zeppelin) over Paris. It was the first successful application of using mechanical power for flight. 5

Tournachon, Gaspard-Felix,

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons


     In 1861, Gustave Poton d`Amecourt, a French scholar and writer, invented a small steam boiler engine made of aluminum. It failed to lift off, but there was a reason his attempt was so important. It was the first time aluminum was used in the manufacturing of a boiler. Also, Amecourt coined the phrase helicopter to describe his invention. 6



The First and the Last Steam Powered Airplane





     The attempt to design an effective and feasible steam propelled aircraft reached into the 1960’s where it was finally abandoned.

     Today, the only areas steam is effectively and still used is on an aircraft carrier is the steam catapult system used in principal to launch jets from the carrier’s.     

    With these advancements in the manufacturing process, it made for vast and rapid improvement. Then in 1853 came the first flight of the only steam powered air ship.

     In my last command while I was in the US Navy as a Machinery Branch Officer at the repair facility SIMA San Diego. One of my shops I was in charge of repaired and overhauled the steam catapults for the carriers.

     With these improvements of the steam engine, it greatly helped define the travel and transportation industries. 8




1)     Kelly, Martin. "Invention of the Steam Engine." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, thoughtco.com/invention-of-the-steam-engine-104723.

2)      Who Invented the Steam Engine? By Elizabeth Peterson  published March 19, 2014 for

          Live Science https://www.livescience.com/who-invented-the-steam-engine    

 3)      The American Railway, The Trains, Railroads and People Who Ran The Rails; The Building of the Railway by Thomas Curtis Clarke

 4)      A History Of Steamboats,  www.sam.usacc.army.mil

 5)    Science Museum –Home-The Giffard-Airship, 1852; Archived brom the original on 6 April 2012

 6)      DMG-Lib.org, https://www.dmg-lib.org/dmglib/main/


 7)     Steamed Up Over Chopper Power, Air Progress July 1969

 8)     National Geographic Society   https://wwwnationalgeographic.org