Designs on mine safety

A memorial in memory of Thomas Newcomen

A memorial in memory of Thomas Newcomen - Credit: Archant

In the latest of his year-long series for Devon Life on Great Devonians, IAN L. HANDFORD, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, profiles Thomas Newcomen, an ironmonger, blacksmith and entrepreneur who would create the first atmospheric steam engine

Thomas Newcomen was born at Lower Street, Dartmouth, although only his baptism on 24 February, 1663, at St Saviour’s Church, is recorded. Later he would become a blacksmith and an itinerant ironmonger selling to mines but quite how his interest in the power of steam was fired is unknown.

The concept of an engine driven by steam was first pursued by a Captain Thomas Savery of Devon and it was he who patented a steam powered pump named ‘The Miner’s Friend’ on 25 June,1698.

Many mines had been dug so deep that they constantly flooded and this meant anything that might expel water from a mine and stop it flooding was invaluable. Savery, a personal friend of the King, was granted a 14-year patent on 25 April, 1699, to protect “engines for raising water by the impellent force of water”, an all encompassing description that debarred similar ideas for years. When Thomas Newcomen finally built his first engine he realised there was no way he could protect his invention.

Thomas married Hannah Waymouth on 13 July, 1705. He was already corresponding with Dr Hooke seeking news of the work of French physicist Denis Papin, and his research on motive power through exhausted air from a cylinder using a piston.

Meanwhile the restriction of Captain Savery’s patent became even more insurmountable when a special Parliamentary Bill extended it by 21 years. Thomas Newcomen now had little choice other than to enter a partnership with Savery, which eventually ensured his engine would become the accepted standard of its time. He befriended a John Calley of Brixham, and it was he that backed Newcomen financially.

Savery, having published details of his pump in 1702, saw the Newcomen engine accepted by 1712. It is possible that the first Newcomen engine was in Cornwall as one is recorded in the Wheat Vor mine in 1715.

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The Public Record Office received no patent application from Newcomen confirming, maybe, the partnership was robust and flexible enough to enable both men to experiment with different designs.

The patent extension to 1733 was, however, legally challenged when the coal trade in Scotland built their first steam engine at Edmonstone Colliery, Midlothian. With coal rather than tin being mined, an agreement in 1725 saw the proprietor Andrew Wuchope and others of London - loosely described as “The Committee authorised by the proprietors of the invention for raising water by fire” - construct a Newcomen-designed engine with wooden beam and arch heads at Edmonstone, after which a small royalty was payable until 1733.

Dr Allen, writing of this in 1730, said of his friend: “It is now more than 30 years since the engine for raising water was at first invented by the famous Captain Savery and upwards of 20 years that it received its great improvement by my good friend the ever memorable Mr Newcomen whose death I very much regret”. His letter is important as it substantially confirms the two men were working on different designs yet, because of the patent, remained in partnership.

More confirmation comes from a book by Desgauliers which states “that Calley and Newcomen having made their experiments in private and having brought their engine to work with a piston…in 1711 made proposals to draw the water at Griff in Warwickshire”.

Thomas Newcomen died in August 1729, aged 66, being survived by Hannah and his children Thomas and Elias. It is recorded they were residents of London, although his letters of administration concerning both the estate and his wife were granted in the Court of Canterbury.

It would take until 1760 before the Scottish engineer James Watt made the next step forward, when incorporating a condenser which was patented in 1769. But it took until 1876 before a copperplate print of Newcomen’s 1712 engine surfaced in a collection of scientific material shown at the South Kensington Exhibition.

This proves Newcomen’s engine had a wooden beam, arch heads and plug rod for the tappets to work the injection steam valves. That original design of twelve strokes a minute could raise 50 gallons of water a minute from a depth of 156 feet.

An engine house containing Thomas Newcomen’s engine can be viewed at Royal Gardens, Dartmouth. Finally, in 2012 a British first class stamp was produced celebrating the 300th anniversary of the inventor’s birth. n

Next month: the author of Lark Rise to Candelford and other classics, who retained a heartfelt link with Dartmouth for much of her life.

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