Harnessing Steam Power to Industrialise Britain

Progress is not one big idea but many thousands of small modifications to what was in the past. One great invention was the steam engine that saw the conversion of heat energy to motion. The steam engines were transformative machines, they redefined how fast and far we could travel around Scotland and what new developments became possible. Cornishman Richard Trevithick’s steam engine led in 1801 to the emergence of rapid steam transport. His puffin devil had its first outing 100 years before the internal combustion engine was developed. Scotland was one of the beneficiaries of early steam power and it is very much part of our Scottish cultural past.

Four motivations for an invention 1 Necessity – Mine owners needed something to pump and drain the water from the mines 2 Aspiration – wouldn’t it be great if we could pull a bigger load. 3 Genius – someone who had the ability and vision to do something different. Of course there is number 4 Luck – without that many great inventions failed.

Trevithick atmospheric steam engine during the late 18 cent was working in the Cornish countryside pumping water from the copper and tin mines which were prolific there. These early machines boiled the water and this created a vacuum and harnessed the power of atmospheric pressure to pull down a giant beam. These early engines were known as beam engines. They revolutionised the mining industry, they were enormous and only supplied a limited amount of power. Most of these engines were built by James Watt and his business partner Mathew Boulton. The engines all had a separate condenser which was protected by a strict patent. Any engine fitted with a separate condenser burnt much less coal. The users of this engine had to pay Watt and Boulton a monthly royalty. If a different type of engine was developed which did not need a separated condenser then they would not have to pay royalties. Richard Trevithick was the man who did this. He invented the use of high pressure steam. His school report was not good but included the comments that “he could arrive at the answer to problems in a different way”. It was this difference that helped him to develop something new. Use of high pressure steam to drive a piston. A high pressure steam engine would not need a separate condenser. To build a high pressure steam engine was considered impossible and dangerous. The equipment would blow up. So Travithic had to build a steam engine which would not blow up. His first challenge was the boiler. No person had attempted this to withstand the high pressure. Travithic had a secret weapon his father in law was a master blacksmith. They decided to create a cylindrical boiler. Before this they were oblong.

The piston was double sided so it was pushed from both directions. He also pre heated the boiler feed water and put the fire inside the boiler. Before the boiler was like a kettle with the heat beneath it. By putting the fire inside the boiler you were extracting the max heat. Here was the early use of the word efficiency. It produced much more power and this allowed him to make the engine smaller and compact. A new invention driven by the need to avoid paying royalties. He then put it on wheels and he was the man who changed the world. Other inventors further developed the idea to make faster, more powerful engines. For the first time powered travel was here. Travithic did not achieve fame or riches but was a key thinker in progressing steam which industrialised Britain.

Scotland’s Past Steam Heritage

Scotland’s past has a rich heritage of utilising steam to industrialise Scottish factories, agriculture, road haulage, forestry and docklands. Today we in Scotland have one of the most prolific collections of steam power found any where in the UK. Aberdeenshire in Scotland has some of the best steam engine rallies that exist. The nostalgia of steam has great appeal for Scots young and old alike. Some of the engines are over 100 years old and are true examples of our rich Scottish cultural identity.