Thomas Newcomen

I am pleased to welcome a guest blogger, Susan W. Howard, now of San Jose, CA., and a descendant of the illustrious Hornblower family of Cornwall. This link will take you to the biography of Joseph Hornblower

Susan gave a talk about her researches at the Cornish Gathering in Milwaukee. She has written this brief portrait of Thomas Newcomen, who is credited with being the inventor of the atmospheric steam engine, which would “do the work of five horses.” One was built at the Wheal Vor mine as early as 1710 and by the time my story opens in 1760 as many as 70 were at work in Cornwall. The engine worked by injecting cold water into the steam cylinder to create a vacuum. The later designs of the Scotsman James Watt and the great Cornishman Richard Trevithick used the energy of expanding steam.

              The Newcomen Engine

The Newcomen Engine

Thomas Newcomen, inventor of the atmospheric steam engine, was a modest and devoutly religious man who left behind few records of his life. Some eighteenth century scientists such as Royal Society member John Desaguliers had difficulty in giving Newcomen credit for his invention. Desaguliers wrote that the engine that began pumping water from the mines at Coneygree colliery near Dudley Castle in Staffordshire in 1712 came about “very luckily by accident.” Newcomen in fact did possess the intellectual capacity and practical experience to build the engine. He relied upon his close-knit circle of fellow Baptists to supply help and needed expertise. Among them were John Calley, Humphrey Potter, and Joseph Hornblower, who built Newcomen engines in Cornwall. Newcomen may have begun building an engine at Wheal Vor in Cornwall as early as 1710; the Royal Cornwall Museum gives him credit for a machine built there in 1716.

Thomas Newcomen was born in Dartmouth, Devon in 1664. He became an ironmonger and while in his early twenties he visited mining regions in the West Midlands and Cornwall to sell and to manufacture metal tools and small household items. No record of an apprenticeship survives, but bills for ironmongery and purchases of bulk iron have been found. Letters written by his contemporaries do contain references to Newcomen and the steam engine. Two of Newcomen’s own letters have survived, and as far as can be discovered, no portrait of him was made. Apparently he began experimenting with steam engines in the mid-1690s. The extent that the ideas of other inventors or scientists influenced his work is a matter of conjecture. Inventor Thomas Savery had already been granted a patent for a “fire engine,” so Newcomen joined in a partnership with him to build an engine suitable for pumping water from the mines. Eventually more than 2,000 atmospheric steam engines were built. Newcomen was also a lay preacher, a trustee of the Netherton Baptist chapel (near Dudley) and an Overseer of the Poor. After his death in 1729 at the London home of fellow Baptist Edward Wallin, Newcomen was buried in Bunhill Fields, a nonconformist cemetery in London; the location of his gravesite, like so many of the details of his life, remains unknown.

Note: Desaguliers quote from L.T.C. Rolt and J. S. Allen, The Steam Engine of Thomas Newcomen, (Landmark Publishing, Ashbourne, Derbershire, 1997) 46.

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