The steam engine is one of the more important inventions in humanity's technological development. While several rudimentary designs have been devised over the past 2000-plus years, English inventor Thomas Savery is credited with building the first workable steam engine in 1698. Subsequent refinements led to safer and more powerful engines over the course of the 18th century, and the first steam engine-powered riverboats and locomotives appeared in the early 1800s. These machines were essential to ushering in the Industrial Revolution and the ensuing changes to civilization.
The earliest known steam-powered device was developed by a Greek engineer known as Hero — or Heron — of Alexandria in the 1st century A.D. Hero’s invention was called an aeolipile and was essentially a water-filled sphere with two nozzles on opposing sides. When placed over a heat source, the water would turn into steam that was then forced out of the nozzles and caused the aeolipile to spin. There is written evidence of subsequent steam-propelled devices in medieval churches, but serious development did not begin again until the 16th and 17th centuries, when European researchers began to more fully investigate the properties of steam.
Throughout the 1600s, the concept of steam-powered devices was refined with advancements such as pistons and separate boilers. Some historians credit Edward Somerset, the second Marquess of Worcester, with developing the first steam engine — in a device designed to pump water throughout a castle. Several other researchers were working on steam-related machines by the end of the 17th century, when Savery introduced the first steam engine capable of working in an industrial capacity.
Savery’s engine was designed to deal with the problem of removing water from deep mines in England. While it lacked certain safety features, Savery’s engine was put to work pumping water from mines and was later used for tasks such as powering mills and pumping water to residential areas. This first steam engine was not safe or efficient enough for widespread use, and the concept continued to be refined after his death.
By the early 19th century, several improvements had been made to the steam engine’s design. Two of the most important developments were the Newcomen and Watt engines, which allowed the widespread application of steam-driven devices. Although modified slightly, Watt’s design was the first steam engine used to power William Symington and Robert Fulton’s steamboats. The first steam-powered locomotives were also developed around this time and led to much faster and efficient travel and transportation.