ASME-Landmark:Newcomen Engine


In 1712, Thomas Newcomen and his assistant John Calley built the first "Newcomen engine," or "fire engine," which employed a vacuum created by condensing steam from a pressure just above atmospheric. The Newcomen Memorial Engine, preserved in Dartmouth, is a small 22-inch diameter cylinder engine that is a direct descendant of Newcomen's first machine.

Newcomen's invention was prompted by a need for better and cheaper means of removing water from coal and other mines in various areas of Great Britain, many of which had been drowned out and abandoned. No practical pumping engine had been devised until partial success was achieved by Thomas Savery in 1698, when he patented a machine that used a vacuum to "suck" water into a container and then steam pressure to force the water to a height. But this simple engine, with no heavy moving parts, was only suited to modest lifts; Newcomen's machine, in contrast, used a piston, a massive rocking beam, pump rods, a boiler, and steam to create an effective atmospheric-pressure engine.

The Newcomen Memorial Engine had been purchased in 1821 by the Coventry Canal Co. to power water from a well into a canal in Warwickshire, and in 1963, the British Transport Commission donated it to the Newcomen Society in honor of Thomas Newcomen's 300th birthday. This engine represents the beginning of the development of practical thermal prime movers in the world and was one of the strategic innovations in the history of the steam engine. See ASME website for more information