We speak to Ed Fagan from the London Museum of Water and Steam about mechanisation and steam power revolutionised manufacturing.
Harnessing the power of steam set off a chain reaction that changed the face of industry forever. Improving on the creation of Thomas Newcomen, James Watt designed a rotary motion steam engine that was safer and more efficient, proving a key element in the Industry Revolution. And while it might have all happened 250 years ago, it remains an impressive feat of engineering. We spoke to Ed Fagan, the operations manager at the London Museum of Water and Steam, to get the background on Watt’s invention and the chain reaction of improvements that it set off in manufacturing, engineering and day-to-day life.
Ed Fagan, Operations Manager at the London Museum of Water and Steam
It’s been more than 250 years since the invention of the steam engine. Just how innovative was James Watt’s invention at the time and why was it necessary?
It’s a common misconception that James Watt ‘invented’ the steam engine. The aeolipile is considered to be world’s first steam engine, and that was recorded in the first century AD by Hero of Alexandria. The first commercially successful steam engine, employing the piston-driven motion we have come to expect, was designed and created by Thomas Newcomen in 1712.
Newcomen’s and Watt’s engines did not use the expansive force of steam, as we might imagine today. Up until this point, steam engines had all been of the non-rotary type – moved in one direction under power and returned to the start by gravity. The creation of powered rotary motion enabled the steam engine to drive factories and machinery. This directly resulted in factories no longer needing be situated along riverbanks so that they might be powered by waterwheel.
The high-pressure steam engine was the beginning of the modern world as we know it. Because of the steam engine and the many men involved in its creation, London became the world’s first ‘modern city’.
What benefits arose from the invention of the steam engine?
It enabled the miner to remove water from the ground and to dig deeper, as the extraction of tin, iron ore, copper and coal were all key to the progress of the industrial age. Without the steam engine, we could not extract as much, and without extraction, we could not amass the material and the power to smelt it in order to build the engines that drove industry.
Additionally, the introduction of the steam engine presented the factory owner with the ability to move from often isolated riverside locations to the outskirts of our growing cities. The steam engine created Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield as we know them and many other cities of note.
What were the effects of the steam engine beyond manufacturing and engineering?
The introduction and development of the steam engine brought about an increase in production of both raw materials and manufactured products. In turn, this created a stronger national economy, supported by clean water and sanitation, which meant that life expectancy increased, causing a greater demand for products and more jobs for the masses to make the products and earn the money to buy them.
The use of the steam engine to pump water, such that it might then be cleaned – removing the effects of dangerous diseases and large scale public health epidemics that punctuated history before 1900 – is, in itself, its most significant effect. Many benevolent industrialists built towns to go with their factories, giving us the rows of terraced workers’ cottages that are so familiar in Britain, and with many of these developments were municipal undertakings such as water supply, schools and hospitals provided for the workers.
Apart from the steam engine, what were Britain’s other major contributions to engineering and manufacturing in the 18th century?
In March 1776, a proposed Act of Parliament to build a bridge of iron across the River Severn in Shropshire was given royal assent. A board of trustees were required to raise the £4000 fund and to govern and manage the project. The project treasurer and eventual contractor was to be Abraham Darby III, whose grandfather had first smelted iron in Coalbrookdale in 1709. The board of trustees, hoping to scrap the scheme, sought tenders for timber and stone bridges instead, but no tenders were forthcoming. The great iron ribs of the bridge began to be lifted onto the stone abutments over the River Severn in the summer of 1779 and by early July, the world’s first Iron Bridge spanned the river. It was opened to traffic on 1st January 1781.
This endeavour would not have been possible without a steam-blowing engine to power the foundry and smelt the enormous 384 (metric) tonnes of iron in order to cast the 17,000 individual components, the heaviest of which weighed in at 5.5 tonnes. The bridge was a modern marvel and the town of Iron Bridge was settled at its western end as a result. The Iron Bridge demonstrated what iron could do, and paved the way for modern foundry techniques. While its components were all unique and fitted to each other, the idea of a structure made from standard components was born.
Industry 4.0 is the current industrial revolution that focusses on the integration of automation and data, particularly around the evolution of the ‘smart factory’. In your opinion, how did the steam engine, and technology of water and steam, allow future manufacturing technologies to develop?
The steam engine gave us the ability to drive machinery, day and night, without the need for multiple operators. Unlike manpower or horsepower, it need only be fed with coal and water. Industry 4.0, as it is known, is not as new as many would imagine.
We know that one of the major associations with the steam engine is the loom - the machine that created consumerist fashion. Industry 4.0, the beginning of data storage, easy replication and automated processes, actually began in the late 1720s with Frenchmen Basile Bouchon and Jean Baptiste Falcon who began to create the invention that would become the Jaquard machine. When attached to a loom, the machine used endless strings of cards, punched with holes, one card for each row of the weave which drove the loom to weave patterned cloth. The Jaquard Loom is the beginning of repetitive automated processes. Modern industry today still uses processes and techniques developed in the enlightened days of the 18th century. The principles of mechanical engineering and the purpose of the output of industry remains the same. However all of these processes are reliant on power to drive them and steam has done this.
What do you think the future of manufacturing looks like and what major changes do you envision?
Humanity has always seemed to strive to create machines to do work for us, while we think about the next way of improving it, and I hope very much that this situation will never change. We will see, in my lifetime, the complete automation of manufacturing, where computers manage lower level computers and man checks in over a virtual network. We will do less and less of the physical elements ourselves.
At the same time, these developments and finer controls will enable industry to become supremely efficient, with the waste products – from power generation to materials use – being minimal and, most importantly, clean. There will come a time when it will not be acceptable to burn coal for power generation, or in the case of museums such as ours, for entertainment and education. The processes developed by Newcomen, Watt and Darby will exist only in animations, film and the essence of the now-silent engines of the past.