Steam Technology


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During the last four hundred years,” wrote the American historian John U. Nef in 1941, in an important article on the rise of industrialism, “the Western peoples have concerned themselves, to a greater degree than any other peoples before them, with the conquest of the material world.” In the story of that conquest the introduction of new forms of power was of crucial importance, and the greatest breakthrough of all was the first: the discovery and application of the power of steam.
For centuries society depended on human and animal muscle, wind and water, and all such natural forms of power are still in use. It was not until the beginning of the 18th century, when the first steam engines were built, that humankind began to break free from this limiting dependence a process that originated in England and spread by stages to the rest of the Western world and beyond. In the process, the Western peoples became increasingly dependent on mineral resources, firstly coal, and on technical and scientific advance.
The steam engine was no exception. There had to be persistent effort before it was perfected and there was much dispute about its likely effects - whether it would liberate or enslave; whether it would destroy the environment; whether through locomotion it would pull the world together or ruin its peace.
From the late 17th century, one point was clear to all far-sighted contemporaries: the development of the engine would have universal, and not merely local or national, implications. The process of invention was itself international, as the process of discovery and development in computer technology was also to be.
The age of the steam engine was relatively short. It began, however, before the work of James Watt, who figures most prominently in all accounts of its achievements, so prominently indeed, that it is difficult to consider his particular achievement in perspective. The scientific explorers were to be found in many countries; the more practical men, Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen outstanding among them, were in the first instance English.
Watt dealt with a wider challenge than that of the mine: the challenge of harnessing power to every kind of machine. The progress of mechanisation (a new word) in the 18th century generated a demand for power on an unprecedented scale. In the textile industry in particular, where new machinery was introduced in both spinning and weaving, there was a restless struggle by the 1770s to obtain ‘power and more power’. The challenge of the mill became the starting point of what soon began to be thought of as the ‘industrial revolution’, a revolution which inevitably transformed other industries besides textiles. ‘Industry’, regarded increasingly as a major sector of the economy, not as it had been earlier in history, as many people turned increasingly to steam during the 19th century. So for a time did the most advanced agriculture, and as the number of steam engines multiplied, the demand for iron and coal multiplied too.
It was steam locomotion however, which was, and still is, usually taken to be the chief of the triumphs of steam. ‘The iron horse’ was the ‘king of beasts’, steam had the power to move people as well as machines, to inspire prophets as well as businessmen, and to generate controversy as well as to establish new routines of life and work.

Text compiled from: The Power of Steam, Asa Briggs, AP Publishing Pty. Ltd. 1981. Photos by Brian Carter.

Steam power was, to those of the 19th century, as innovative and
controversial as computers and electronics are to us here today...
at the dawn of the 21st century!

Steam Related Links

A visit to Sydney is never complete without including the Powerhouse Museum located at Ultimo, near Darling Harbour.

A "must see" at the museum is the Boulton and Watt engine... the oldest rotative steam engine in existence and still running on steam!

While at the museum don't forget to visit the permanent Steam Exhibition that regularly runs on steam.


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