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The Newcomen Engine

In this episode we learn about The Newcomen Steam Engine. It was a tremendous innovation by a Mr Thomas Newcomen and first installed at the Coneygree Colliery in the Black Country in 1712.  This type of engine was put to work in mines all over the country and helped to change the world.

Dangers of the Mine

150 years ago, the Black Country was one of the centres for coal mining in the UK. Mining was very dangerous work. Conditions in the mines were not pleasant. They were dark, cold, damp and it was very hard work to collect the coal. There were many possible accidents that could occur in these conditions:

‘A miner may fall down a shaft of a pit in work, or he may fall into the shaft of a pit now abandoned.’

‘When going down the shaft to their work something may fall upon them.’

‘A miner may be suffocated by carbonic acid gas, or as they express it, may be damped to death.’

‘Explosions of carburetted hydrogen gas, which is usually called by the miners sulphur, sometimes prove very destructive, not only by scorching to death, but by the suffocation of foul air after the explosion is over,’

‘A miner may be drowned from water breaking in over old workings.

Number of Deaths of miners from 1700

YearsTotal Deaths
Source: the coalmining history resource centre

Why was The Newcomen Engine needed?

It’s all to do with the problem of water flooding mines – whether iron ore or limestone. Water would seep through the rocks and it was almost impossible to tell where it would come through, or in what quantities. It wasn’t safe to work in a flooded mine and so the pit had to shut – losing owners money. In earlier days of mining hand pumps were used but as the mines got deeper the more difficult it was to get the water out. More powerful pumps were needed – pumps like the Newcomen Engine. 

How does The Newcomen Engine work?

A furnace heats the water in the chamber. The resulting steam expands and it rises up, where it’s blasted with cold water, making it condense – or shrink – again, and this contraction causes a vacuum which pulls on a piston and in doing so pulling out the water from the mine.  A continuous cold injection of cold water is what set the Newcomen Engine aside from other pumps.

Who was Thomas Newcomen?

Thomas Newcomen was an English inventor.

He was born in 1664 in Dartmouth, in Devon, England, to a merchant family. Charles II was on the throne and the beginnings of the industrial revolution to come could be seen in new innovations and inventions. The first steam engine was built in 1698 by mechanical engineer Thomas Savery who later would collaborate with Newcomen.

A religious man, Thomas Newcomen was a lay preacher and a teaching elder in the local Baptist church. After 1710 he became the pastor of a local group of Baptists.

We don’t know much about his later life. We know he died in 1729, and was buried at Bunhill Fields burial ground on the outskirts of the City of London but the exact site of his grave is unknown.

“Black by day, red by night”

The engine – known at the time as the “Fire Engine” burned huge quantities of coal and belched thick smoke making the skies “Black by Day – Red by Night” as Elihu Burritt, the United States Consul in Birmingham observed in 1868.

It wasn’t actually particularly efficient but it accelerated industrial growth in South Staffordshire, and helped give the region it’s name.

Part of its success was that it enabled mines to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This “24/7” regime helped to propelled industrial growth across the Western World. It freed industrial production from the uncertainties associated with wind and water power, human and animal muscle.

Full Steam Ahead!

The power of steam was known from the time of the Ancient Greeks, it had even been used to make toys move – but it took many centuries until people thought to put it to work in machinery.

The Newcomen Engine was the first successful steam engine to be used in mines.  Once the power of steam had been recognised, it would be harnessed in engines to make machinery operate more quickly, enable people to travel faster and further on the railways, and to produce more goods in our factories.  And all with coal from the Black Country, the world would be transformed.

Activity: Think about a world changing invention!

Lots of things around us can be used in different ways.

Have a think about every day items that could have an alternative use…

Maybe you could be the next Thomas Newcomen!

MOBILE: History for Kids

Discover what life for children was like throughout the ages

Adventures Through Time is made with support from The Black Country Living Museum

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Adventures Through Time

Learn all about The Black Country and its amazing history with this series!

More From Adventures Through Time