THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE GENERATION AND USE OF STEAMWhile the time of man’s first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. In a treatise of about that time entitled“Pneumatica”, Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level. He clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere. The third method, which is known as“Hero’s engine”, is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere. Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.
Hero makes no suggestions as to application of any of the devices he describes to a useful purpose. From the time of Hero until the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, there is no record of progress, though evidence is found that such devices as were described by Hero were sometimes used for trivial purposes, the blowing of an organ or the turning of a skillet.
Mathesius, the German author, in 1571; Besson, a philosopher and mathematician at Orleans; Ramelli, in 1588; Battista Delia Porta, a Neapolitan mathematician and philosopher, in 1601; Decause, the French engineer and architect, in 1615; and Branca, an Italian architect, in 1629, all published treatises bearing on the subject of the generation of steam.
To the next contributor, Edward Somerset, second Marquis of Worcester, is apparently due the credit of proposing, if not of making, the first useful steam engine. In the “Century of Scantlings and Inventions”,published in London in 1663, he describes devices showing that he had in mind the raising of water not only by forcing it from two receivers by direct steam pressure but also for some sort of reciprocating piston actuating one end of a lever, the other operating a pump. His descriptions are rather obscure and no drawings are extant so that it is difficult to say whether there were any distinctly novel features to his devices aside from the double action. While there is no direct authentic record that any of the devices he described were actually constructed, it is claimed by many that he really built and operated a steam engine containing pistons.
In 1675, Sir Samuel Moreland was decorated by King Charles II, for a demonstration of “a certain powerful machine to raise water.” Though there appears to be no record of the design of this machine, the mathematical dictionary, published in 1822, credits Moreland with the first account of a steam engine, on which subject he wrote a treatise that is still preserved in the British Museum.
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[Pg 15] Dr. Denys Papin, an ingenious Frenchman, invented in 1680 “a steam digester for extracting marrowy, nourishing juices from bones by enclosing them in a boiler under heavy pressure,” and finding danger from explosion, added a contrivance which is the first safety valve on record.
The steam engine first became commercially successful with Thomas Savery. In 1699, Savery exhibited before the Royal Society of England (Sir Isaac Newton was President at the time), a model engine which consisted of two copper receivers alternately connected by a three-way hand-operated valve, with a boiler and a source of water supply. When the water in one receiver had been driven out by the steam, cold water was poured over its outside surface, creating a vacuum through condensation and causing it to fill again while the water in the other reservoir was being forced out. A number of machines were built on this principle and placed in actual use as mine pumps.
The serious difficulty encountered in the use of Savery’s engine was the fact that the height to which it could lift water was limited by the pressure the boiler and vessels could bear. Before Savery’s engine was entirely displaced by its successor, Newcomen’s, it was considerably improved by Desaguliers, who applied the Papin safety valve to the boiler and substituted condensation by a jet within the vessel for Savery’s surface condensation.
In 1690, Papin suggested that the condensation of steam should be employed to make a vacuum beneath a cylinder which had previously been raised by the expansion of steam. This was the earliest cylinder and piston steam engine and his plan took practical shape in Newcomen’s atmospheric engine. Papin’s first engine was unworkable owing to the fact that he used the same vessel for both boiler and cylinder. A small quantity of water was placed in the bottom of the vessel and heat was applied. When steam formed and raised the piston, the heat was withdrawn and the piston did work on its down stroke under pressure of the atmosphere. After hearing of Savery’s engine, Papin developed an improved form. Papin’s engine of 1705 consisted of a displacement chamber in which a floating diaphragm or piston on top of the water kept the steam and water from direct contact. The water delivered by the downward movement of the piston under pressure, to a closed tank, flowed in a continuous stream against the vanes of a water wheel. When the steam in the displacement chamber had expanded, it was exhausted to the atmosphere through a valve instead of being condensed. The engine was, in fact, a non-condensing, single action steam pump with the steam and pump cylinders in one. A curious feature of this engine was a heater placed in the diaphragm. This was a mass of heated metal for the purpose of keeping the steam dry or preventing condensation during expansion. This device might be called the first superheater.
Among the various inventions attributed to Papin was a boiler with an internal fire box, the earliest record of such construction.
While Papin had neglected his earlier suggestion of a steam and piston engine to work on Savery’s ideas, Thomas Newcomen, with his assistant, John Cawley, put into practical form Papin’s suggestion of 1690. Steam admitted from the boiler to a cylinder raised a piston by its expansion, assisted by a counter-weight on the other end of a beam actuated by the piston. The steam valve was then shut and the steam condensed by a jet of cold water. The piston was then forced downward by atmospheric pressure and did work on the pump. The condensed water in the cylinder was expelled through an escapement valve by the next entry of steam. This engine used steam having pressure but little, if any, above that of the atmosphere.
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[Pg 17] In 1711, this engine was introduced into mines for pumping purposes. Whether its action was originally automatic or whether dependent upon the hand operation of the valves is a question of doubt. The story commonly believed is that a boy, Humphrey Potter, in 1713, whose duty it was to open and shut such valves of an engine he attended, by suitable cords and catches attached to the beam, caused the engine to automatically manipulate these valves. This device was simplified in 1718 by Henry Beighton, who suspended from the bottom, a rod called the plug-tree, which actuated the valve by tappets. By 1725, this engine was in common use in the collieries and was changed but little for a matter of sixty or seventy years. Compared with Savery’s engine, from the aspect of a pumping engine, Newcomen’s was a distinct advance, in that the pressure in the pumps was in no manner dependent upon the steam pressure. In common with Savery’s engine, the losses from the alternate heating cooling of the steam cylinder were enormous. Though obviously this engine might have been modified to serve many purposes, its use seems to have been limited almost entirely to the pumping of water.
The rivalry between Savery and Papin appears to have stimulated attention to the question of fuel saving. Dr. John Allen, in 1730, called attention to the fact that owing to the short length of time of the contact between the gases and the heating surfaces of the boiler, nearly half of the heat of the fire was lost. With a view to overcoming this loss at least partially, he used an internal furnace with a smoke flue winding through the water in the form of a worm in a still. In order that the length of passage of the gases might not act as a damper on the fire, Dr. Allen recommended the use of a pair of bellows for forcing the sluggish vapor through the flue. This is probably the first suggested use of forced draft. In forming an estimate of the quantity of fuel lost up the stack, Dr. Allen probably made the first boiler test.
Toward the end of the period of use of Newcomen’s atmospheric engine, John Smeaton, who, about 1770, built and installed a number of large engines of this type, greatly improved the design in its mechanical details.
The improvement in boiler and engine design of Smeaton, Newcomen and their contemporaries, were followed by those of the great engineer, James Watt, an instrument maker of Glasgow. In 1763, while repairing a model of Newcomen’s engine, he was impressed by the great waste of steam to which the alternating cooling and heating of the engine gave rise. His remedy was the maintaining of the cylinder as hot as the entering steam and with this in view he added a vessel separate from the cylinder, into which the steam should pass from the cylinder and be there condensed either by the application of cold water outside or by a jet from within. To preserve a vacuum in his condenser, he added an air pump which should serve to remove the water of condensation and air brought in with the injection water or due to leakage. As the cylinder no longer acted as a condenser, he could maintain it at a high temperature by covering it with non-conducting material and, in particular, by the use of a steam jacket. Further and with the same object in view, he covered the top of the cylinder and introduced steam above the piston to do the work previously accomplished by atmospheric pressure. After several trials with an experimental apparatus based on these ideas, Watt patented his improvements in 1769. Aside from their historical importance, Watt’s improvements, as described in his specification, are to this day a [Pg 18] [Pl 18]
[Pg 19] statement of the principles which guide the scientific development of the steam engine. His words are:
“My method of lessening the consumption of steam, and consequently fuel, in fire engines, consists of the following principles:The fifth claim was for a rotary engine, and need not be quoted here.
“First, That vessel in which the powers of steam are to be employed to work the engine, which is called the cylinder in common fire engines, and which I call the steam vessel, must, during the whole time the engine is at work, be kept as hot as the steam that enters it; first, by enclosing it in a case of wood, or any other materials that transmit heat slowly; secondly, by surrounding it with steam or other heated bodies; and, thirdly, by suffering neither water nor any other substance colder than the steam to enter or touch it during that time.
“Secondly, In engines that are to be worked wholly or partially by condensation of steam, the steam is to be condensed in vessels distinct from the steam vessels or cylinders, although occasionally communicating with them; these vessels I call condensers; and, whilst the engines are working, these condensers ought at least to be kept as cold as the air in the neighborhood of the engines, by application of water or other cold bodies.
“Thirdly, Whatever air or other elastic vapor is not condensed by the cold of the condenser, and may impede the working of the engine, is to be drawn out of the steam vessels or condensers by means of pumps, wrought by the engines themselves, or otherwise.
“Fourthly, I intend in many cases to employ the expansive force of steam to press on the pistons, or whatever may be used instead of them, in the same manner in which the pressure of the atmosphere is now employed in common fire engines. In cases where cold water cannot be had in plenty, the engines may be wrought by this force of steam only, by discharging the steam into the air after it has done its office….
“Sixthly, I intend in some cases to apply a degree of cold not capable of reducing the steam to water, but of contracting it considerably, so that the engines shall be worked by the alternate expansion and contraction of the steam.
“Lastly, Instead of using water to render the pistons and other parts of the engine air and steam tight, I employ oils, wax, resinous bodies, fat of animals, quick-silver and other metals in their fluid state.”
The early efforts of Watt are typical of those of the poor inventor struggling with insufficient resources to gain recognition and it was not until he became associated with the wealthy manufacturer, Mattheu Boulton of Birmingham, that he met with the success upon which his present fame is based. In partnership with Boulton, the business of the manufacture and the sale of his engines were highly successful in spite of vigorous attacks on the validity of his patents.
Though the fourth claim of Watt’s patent describes a non-condensing engine which would require high pressures, his aversion to such practice was strong. Notwithstanding his entire knowledge of the advantages through added expansion under high pressure, he continued to use pressures not above 7 pounds per square inch above the atmosphere. To overcome such pressures, his boilers were fed through a stand-pipe of sufficient height to have the column of water offset the pressure within the boiler. Watt’s attitude toward high pressure made his influence felt long after his patents had expired.
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[Pg 21] In 1782, Watt patented two other features which he had invented as early as 1769. These were the double acting engine, that is, the use of steam on both sides of the piston and the use of steam expansively, that is, the shutting off of steam from the cylinder when the piston had made but a portion of its stroke, the power for the completion of the stroke being supplied by the expansive force of the steam already admitted.
He further added a throttle valve for the regulation of steam admission, invented the automatic governor and the steam indicator, a mercury steam gauge and a glass water column.
It has been the object of this brief history of the early developments in the use of steam to cover such developments only through the time of James Watt. The progress of the steam engine from this time through the stages of higher pressures, combining of cylinders, the application of steam vehicles and steamboats, the adding of third and fourth cylinders, to the invention of the turbine with its development and the accompanying development of the reciprocating engine to hold its place, is one long attribute to the inventive genius of man.
While little is said in the biographies of Watt as to the improvement of steam boilers, all the evidence indicates that Boulton and Watt introduced the first “wagon boiler”, so called because of its shape. In 1785, Watt took out a number of patents for variations in furnace construction, many of which contain the basic principles of some of the modern smoke preventing furnaces. Until the early part of the nineteenth century, the low steam pressures used caused but little attention to be given to the form of the boiler operated in connection with the engines above described. About 1800, Richard Trevithick, in England, and Oliver Evans, in America, introduced non-condensing, and for that time, high pressure steam engines. To the initiative of Evans may be attributed the general use of high pressure steam in the United States, a feature which for many years distinguished American from European practice. The demand for light weight and economy of space following the beginning of steam navigation and the invention of the locomotive required boilers designed and constructed to withstand heavier pressures and forced the adoption of the cylindrical form of boiler. There are in use to-day many examples of every step in the development of steam boilers from the first plain cylindrical boiler to the most modern type of multi-tubular locomotive boiler, which stands as the highest type of fire-tube boiler construction.
The early attempts to utilize water-tube boilers were few. A brief history of the development of the boilers, in which this principle was employed, is given in the following chapter. From this history it will be clearly indicated that the first commercially successful utilization of water tubes in a steam generator is properly attributed to George H. Babcock and Stephen Wilcox.
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