Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729) and James Watt (1736-1819)

Christians Who Changed Their World

This is part of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life.

The Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is often called the Age of Steam, and for good reason. The factories of the Industrial Revolution were powered by steam engines, as were the trains and eventually the ships that transported the goods mass-produced by the new, mechanized manufacturing steam power made possible. And just like the medieval industrial revolution, the new technologies were created, not by scientists, but by craftsmen working to make work safer and more meaningful as a result of a biblical understanding of the significance of labor.

The first practical steam engine was produced by Thomas Newcomen. Newcomen was a teaching elder in a small Baptist church in Dartmouth in Devon, England. The church was too small to be able to pay him, however, so he made his living as an ironmonger—that is, he made and sold iron goods for the home rather than for industrial use.

Devon is in the region of Cornwall, which had been known for its tin mines since the days of the Phoenicians. Mining was and is a dangerous occupation, but the primary problem the mines faced was not cave in or toxic gases, but flooding: mines are essentially holes in the ground, and if you dig a deep enough hole, it fills with water.

This wasn’t a new problem of course, and it had already provoked important technological developments in Europe. In the fifteenth century, the suction pump had been invented in Germany specifically to help drain mines. By the sixteenth century, multi-stage pumps were set in place, which enabled formerly played out mines to be reopened. This resulted in a silver boom in the Holy Roman Empire, which among other things allowed mining engineer Hans Luther to send his son Martin to school, and funded the creation of the University of Wittenberg.

By the late seventeenth century, several people were experimenting with steam power and vacuums.[1] The French Huguenot[2] Denis Papin invented a “steam digester” (an early form of pressure cooker) in the late 1670s while working with Robert Boyle in England. Because Louis XIV of France was persecuting Protestants and revoked their legal protection in 1685, Papin moved to Germany. While there, his observations of the steam digester led him to realize that steam could actually be a source of power, and so in 1690 he built a model of the first steam piston engine.

Meanwhile, English military engineer Thomas Savery invented a very primitive form of “fire engine” (i.e., an engine powered by fire; in this case, it was a steam siphon) for pumping water. Although it did not work well for and at best could only draw water up about 30 feet, Savery got a patent and as a result all future “fire engines” had to be licensed through him. Papin used Savery’s engine as the basis for further work in Germany in collaboration with Gottfried Leibniz, resulting in a piston driven steam engine in 1705 and a steam powered ship in 1707—the first vehicle of any kind powered by a steam engine.

Newcomen knew Savery and was probably aware of Papin’s work as well. The Baptist preacher and iron monger believed that a more effective steam pump was possible. He developed a system in which a boiler produced steam which drove a piston upward. A valve then sealed the piston chamber from the boiler and cold water was pumped into the piston chamber. This cooled it off, dropping the pressure and pulling the piston back down. The valve was then reopened and the process repeated. The vertical motion of the piston moved a beam which pivoted on a central fulcrum. The other side of the beam was attached to a chain which went down into the mine to the water pump.

The Newcomen steam engine worked far better than any other that had yet been developed. The “Proprietors of the Invention for Raising Water by Fire,” an unincorporated company operating under Savery’s patent, oversaw the building of the steam engines. The committee that ran the company included a number of Baptist leaders, including at least one pastor. By Newcomen’s death, at least 75 steam engines had been built and were in use across England and Cornwall in coal, lead, tin, and copper mines.

Newcomen’s engine was so successful that its supremacy was unchallenged for fifty years. It did have one weakness, however: cooling the piston each cycle wasted a great deal of energy, though no one knew precisely how much. That would change with the work of James Watt.

Watt was born in Scotland on the Firth of Forth, the son of a shipbuilder. His parents were both Covenanters, strict Presbyterians that earlier in the century had been persecuted under Charles II. Watt was mostly homeschooled and showed an aptitude for mathematics, manual dexterity, and engineering, rather than Latin and Greek.

As a young man, Watt studied mathematical instrument making in London, then moved to Glasgow where he went to work making various kinds of scientific instruments. He was not allowed to set up shop, however, because he had not been an apprentice in the city. His career was saved, however, when he got the opportunity to repair astronomical instruments at the University of Glasgow. His success led the University to permit him to set up a workshop to make and repair the University’s scientific equipment.

Watt got interested in steam engines and tried to build one (unsuccessfully) even though he had never seen a working example of the Newcomen engine. He read everything he could on the subject, however, and realized that the heat loss in the piston was a major drawback to Newcomen’s design. After finally having a chance to repair a Newcomen engine, he was able to show that three quarters of the energy was lost because of the cooling of the piston on each stroke. He solved this problem by adding a condenser separate from the piston to cool the steam, and putting a “steam jacket” around the piston to keep its temperature the same as the steam going into it. This dramatically increased the efficiency of the engine, making it far less expensive to run.

Although there were technical difficulties in manufacturing pistons large enough to be useful, they were soon overcome. Watt then further improved the engine’s efficiency, developed a system of gears that converted linear to rotary motion, and invented a mechanism to keep the engine operating at a constant speed, all of which made the steam engine far more versatile than Newcomen’s had been. Watt’s engine quickly replaced the waterwheel and the horse as the main source of power for machinery, including particularly the emerging technologies of the industrial revolution. It also powered the first locomotives, spurring the development of railroads, and was even adapted to power the first practical steamboats.

Papin, Newcomen and Watt were part of a long line of Christians who produced technological advancements aimed at increasing productivity and eliminating drudgery on the basis of biblical ideas about work. Those ideas shaped the Western tradition even among those who were at best nominal Christians. No other culture had the commitment to the goodness of this world, to the unique dignity of each person, to the value of work and production, and to making work meaningful, and as a result no other culture developed technologies aimed at improving production and benefiting common workers. The development of the steam engine as well as the attitude toward work that led to it set the stage for the entire industrial revolution and the unprecedented prosperity that followed.



[1] The French scientist and theologian Blaise Pascal had only recently demonstrated that vacuums did exist in an experiment with barometers. This idea was critical for developing steam power.

[2] The Huguenots were French Calvinists who had limited rights to worship under the terms of the Edict of Nantes (1598); by this time, however, they were facing increasing pressure from the crown to convert to Catholicism.


Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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