Thomas Newcomen

Newcomen Engine House

Thomas Newcomen was the inventor of the first practicable atmospheric steam pumping engine, the Newcomen engine. This was to have a profound effect on the ability to mine from greater depths, thus assisting the dawning industrial revolution.

Newcomen was born in Dartmouth, Devon in 1664, a devout Baptist. He worked as an ironmonger – and so described himself throughout his life. He not only sold items but fabricated parts himself from metal. Through this he became familiar with the mines of Devon and Cornwall where he noted the difficulty and expense of removing water from the mines.

Another Devonian, Captain Thomas Savery, had invented a pump in about 1698, and took out a broadly-worded patent for “raising water and imparting motion to all sorts of mill-work by the impellant force of fire”. The device relied upon vacuum and atmospheric pressure to raise water from below, and upon high-pressure steam to force this water to the surface of the mine. It was not a success when used in mines, there were difficulties in construction due to the limits of current technology, but the patent created problems later for Newcomen.

There is no known image of Thomas Newcomen, but the location of his house and workshop are known and are commemorated by plaques in Dartmouth. He worked for many years on his invention, and achieved success in about 1710 with the construction of the world’s first reciprocating steam engine. This also relied on a vacuum but was a great advance over Savery’s pump, and made no undue demands on the technology then available.

This item was written by Past President John Allen who has made the study of Newcomen his life’s work.

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