Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Savery and Newcomen, Inventors

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WHEN a commission was sent by the Parliament to search Raglan Castle for arms, a jet of water was sent pouring over them in a way to them extraordinary. It was from a steam-propelled fountain, invented and executed by Edward Somerset, Lord Herbert, the son of the Marquess of Worcester. In 1646 the castle stood a siege from the Parliamentarians, under Sir Trevor Williams and Colonel Morgan, and finally under Sir Thomas Fairfax. It surrendered on 17 August. No sooner was the castle abandoned than the lead and timber of the roofs were carried off for the rebuilding of Bristol Bridge, and the peasantry of the neighbourhood began to dig in the moats, drain the fish-ponds, and tear down the walls in quest of treasures supposed to be concealed there, and to rip up pipes, and pull to pieces lead and iron work to appropriate the metal. Then it was that Lord Herbert's steam fountain was destroyed.

The old Marquess died in December of the same year, and Edward Somerset became second Marquess of Worcester. Whilst in the Tower, in 1652-4, the Marquess wrote his Century of the Names and Scantlings of Inventions, but it was not published till 1663. "He was a man," says Clarendon, "of a fair and gentle carriage towards all men (as in truth he was of a civil and obliging nature)." He died 3 April, 1667. In his remarkable book he anticipated the power of steam, and indeed may be said to have invented the first steam engine. His object in his steam-fountain was to throw up or raise water to a great height. His words are as follows: "This admirable method which I propose of raising water by the force of fire has no bounds if the vessels be strong enough; for I have taken a cannon, and having filled it three-fourths full of water and shut up its muzzle and touch-hole, and exposed it to the fire for twenty-four hours, it burst with a great explosion. Having afterwards discovered a method of fortifying vessels internally, and combined them in such a way that they filled and acted alternately, I have made the water spout in an uninterrupted stream forty feet high, and one vessel of rarefied water raised 40 of cold water. The person who conducted the operation had nothing to do but turn two cocks, so that one vessel of water being consumed, another begins to force, and then to fill itself with cold water, and so on in succession." By means of his contrivance he proposed "not only with little charge to drain all sorts of mines, and furnish cities with water, though never so high seated, as well as to keep them sweet, running through several streets, and so performing the work of scavengers, as well as furnishing the inhabitants with sufficient water for their private occasions, but likewise supply rivers with sufficient to maintain and make them portable from town to town, and for the bettering of lands all the way it runs, with many more advantageous and yet greater effects, of profits, admiration, and consequence so that deservedly I deem this invention to crown my labours, to reward my expenses, and make my thoughts acquiesce in the way of further inventions."

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The Marquess of Worcester's small book attracted some attention even in his own generation. About twenty years after his death, Sir Samuel Morland made some improvements on Worcester's plan, raising water to a great height "by the force of Aire and Powder conjointly." He endeavoured to draw the attention of the French King to the matter, but met with no encouragement.

Denis Papin was a French physician, born at Blois in 1647. He studied medicine in Paris, and visited England to associate himself with Robert Boyle in his experiments, and was admitted a member of the Royal Society in 1681. After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, being a Huguenot, he could not return to France, so took refuge in Germany, where he was well received by the Landgrave of Hesse, who gave him the professorship of mathematics in the University of Marburg. He was the first to apply the safety-valve and the piston to the steam engine. He showed that the upward and downward alternate movement of the piston might be employed with effect for the transmission of force. If after the rise of the piston a vacuum could be created below, the piston would fall with the pressure of the atmosphere above. In order to create this vacuum he proposed to explode gunpowder under the piston; but he saw himself that this method of creating a void was clumsy and impracticable. He then sought to exhaust the air by means of an hydraulic engine moved by a water-wheel, and he proposed a machine of this sort to the Royal Society in 1687; but he also suggested a means of producing the required vacuum by condensation of steam.

Much about the same time the same idea occurred to Thomas Savery, a native of Modbury, a member of an ancient Devonshire family, coming originally from Halberton, whence John Savery moved to Totnes. Probably through the wool and clothing trade, he amassed a considerable estate in the reign of Henry VIII. In the sixteenth century the heiress of Servington of Tavistock married into the family. In 1588, Christopher Savery, the head of the family, resided in Totnes Castle, not then dismantled; and for a period of nearly forty years the town was represented in Parliament by members of the Savery family. One Christopher served as Sheriff of Devon in 1620. His son was a colonel under Oliver Cromwell.

The Saverys had acquired Shilston in Modbury at the end of the sixteenth century, and resided there till the middle of the nineteenth. Colonel Christopher Savery's youngest son is said by Mr. Smiles, in his Lives of Boulton and Watt, to have been Richard. But Richard does not appear in the pedigree in Colonel Vivian's Visitations of Devon. This is, however, no proof that Smiles is wrong. Richard Savery was the father of Thomas, who was born, "according to Smiles, at Shilston about the year 1650. He was educated to the profession of a military engineer, and in course of time reached the rank of trench-master. The pursuit of his profession, as well as his natural disposition, led Savery to study mechanics, and he spent all his spare time in executing mechanical contrivances of various sorts. One of the first of these was a paddle-boat worked by men turning a crank. He spent £200 on this, and built a small yacht on the Thames to exhibit its utility. But when submitted to the Admiralty they would have nothing to do with it, as its practical utility was doubtful. The power of wind was better than hand labour in propelling a vessel; and although his machine might answer on a river, it was extremely doubtful whether it would succeed even in a moderately rough sea.

Dissatisfied at the reception of his paddle-boat by the naval authorities, Savery gave no more thought to it, and turned his attention in another direction.

The miners in Cornwall had been hampered by water flowing into their workings. When the upper strata had become exhausted they were tempted to go deeper in search of richer ores. Shafts were sunk into the lodes, and these were followed underground, but very speedily had to be abandoned through the influx of water. When the mines were of no great depth it was possible to bale the water out by hand buckets; but this expedient was laborious and ineffectual, as the water gained on the men who baled. Then whims were introduced, and by means of horse-power water was drawn up. But this process also proved to be but partially effective: in one pit after another the miners were being drowned out.

In the fen lands water was drawn up out of the drains and pumped into canals by means of windmills; and it is to this that Ben Jonson alludes in his play The Devil is an Ass, 1616, when he makes Fitzdottrell say: "This man defies the devil and his works. He does it by engines and devices, he! He has … mills will spout you water ten miles off! All Crowland is ours, wife; and the fens, from us, in Norfolk, to the utmost bounds in Lincolnshire."

But the use of wind as a motive power does not seem to have occurred to the Cornish miners, or perhaps it was thought to be too uncertain to be of much value for pumping purposes.

It is possible enough that Savery had read the suggestions of the Marquess of Worcester, and that this ingenious author gave him the first hint whither to turn to find the force required. But how he was led to steam is differently stated.

Desaguliers says that Savery's own account was this: Having drunk a flask of Florence at a tavern, and thrown the bottle into the fire, he proceeded to wash his hands, when he noticed that the little wine left in the flask was converted into steam. He took the vessel by the neck and plunged its mouth into the water in the basin, when, the steam being condensed, the water was immediately driven up into the bottle by the atmospheric pressure.

Switzer, however, who was very intimate with Savery, gives another account. He says that the first hint from which he took the engine was from a tobacco-pipe, which he immersed in water to wash or cool it. Then he noticed how that by the rarefaction of the air in the tube by the heat, the gravitation or pressure of the external air, upon the condensation of the steam, made the water to spring through the tube of the pipe in a most surprising manner.

However it was that Savery obtained his first idea of the expansion and condensation of steam and of atmospheric pressure, he had now before him a new and untried power with which to deal, and he was obliged to approach it by several tentative efforts.

Before 1696 he had constructed several steam pumping engines to mines in Cornwall, and he described these as already working in his book entitled The Miners' Friend.[1] He took with him a model to London and exhibited it to William III in 1698, and the King promoted Savery's application for a patent, which was secured in July, 1698, and an Act was passed confirming it in the ensuing year.

Papin saw Savery's steam engine, when exhibited before the Royal Society, he also witnessed the trial of his paddle-boat on the Thames. Returning to Marburg, of which university he was professor, he thought over what he had seen, and it occurred to him to combine the two contrivances in one, and to apply Savery's motive power in the pump to drive Savery's paddle-wheels. But it took him fifteen years to fit up a boat that worked to his satisfaction. "It is important," he wrote to Liebnitz on 7 July, 1707, "that my new construction of vessel should be put to the proof in a seaport like London, where there is depth enough to apply the new invention, which, by means of fire, will render one or two men capable of producing more effect than some hundreds of rowers." Papin's boat that he intended to send to London was destroyed by some watermen, who feared the new invention might interfere with their trade.

Savery proposed to apply his engine to various purposes. One was to pump water into a reservoir for the production of an artificial waterfall for driving mills or any other ordinary machinery; that is to say, by means of steam he would lift a body of water which by flowing back might drive an overshot wheel, from the rotation of which the motive power for any other mechanical operations would be derived. This, however, was never done, and Savery's engine continued to be employed only in the drainage of Cornish mines. But it had this disadvantage, that it could not heave water but to about eighty feet, and as the depth of mines was from fifty to a hundred yards, the only way to exhaust the water was by erecting several engines in successive stages, one above the other. But the expense of fuel and attendants and the constant danger of explosions rendered it clear that the use of his engine for deep mines was altogether impracticable. Such was the state of affairs when Thomas Newcomen, a blacksmith and ironmonger of Dartmouth, turned his attention to the matter.

Thomas Newcomen was a member of a very ancient family.

In the church of Stoke Fleming, near Dartmouth, is a brass with this inscription:—

Elias old lies here intombed in grave,
But Newcomin to heaven's habitation.
In knowledge old, in zeal, in life most grave,
Too good for all who live in lamentation.
Whose sheep and seed with heavie plaint and mone,
Will say too late, Elias old is gone!
The 13th May, 1614.

Over this inscription is a shield of arms, with helmet, crest, and mantling, bearing the arms of Newcomen, of Saltfleetby, in Lincolnshire, with six quarterings. This is the monument of Elias Newcomen, rector of Stoke Fleming. The pedigree of the family commences with Hugo Newcomen, of Saltfleetby, in 1189-99. Elias Newcomen, rector of Stoke Fleming, had a brother Robert, who went to Ireland and was created a baronet.

The son of the Rev. Elias was Thomas, who settled in Dartmouth, and this Thomas had a son Elias, who was the father of the inventor Thomas, who was baptized at Dartmouth 28 February, 1663-4. He married Hannah, daughter of Peter Waymouth, of Maiborough, Devon, in 1705, and died in 1729.

He left two sons, Thomas and Elias; and Thomas Newcomen, son of the inventor, compiled a pedigree with a view to proving his claim to the Irish baronetcy, but probably abandoned the attempt from want of funds to prosecute the claim.[2]

Although of gentle blood, Thomas Newcomen, son of Elias, and the inventor, was a tradesman in
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Dartmouth, variously described as a locksmith, an ironmonger, and a blacksmith; and probably combining all these trades. He lived in a picturesque gabled house, with overhanging stories sustained by carved-oak corbels, in Lower Street. As the street was very narrow, it was taken down by order of the Local Board, in 1864, and Mr. Thomas Lidstone became the purchaser of the most interesting portions of the old dwelling. These he afterwards erected in a new building for himself, which he called Newcomen Cottage. This Mr. Lidstone was greatly interested in the history of Newcomen, and in 1871 published A Few Notes and Queries about Newcomen, and in 1876 Notes on the Model of Newcomen's Steam Engine (1705).

For some time Thomas Newcomen carried on his experiments in secret on the leads of his house. A letter extant of the time is quoted by Mr. Lidstone.

"When [Newcomen] was engaged on his great work, which took him three years from its commencement until it was completed, and was kept a profound secret, some of his friends would press Mrs. Newcomen to find out what her husband was engaged about, and, ’for their part, they would not be satisfied to be kept in ignorance.' Mrs. Newcomen replied, ’I am perfectly easy. Mr. Newcomen cannot be employed about anything wrong; and I am fully persuaded, when he thinks proper, he will, himself, unasked, inform me.'"

When Thomas Newcomen had perfected his engine he associated with himself Galley or Cawley, a Dartmouth brazier, and How, another Dartmouth man, in applying for a patent.

Newcomen was a man of reading, and was in correspondence with Dr. Hooke, secretary of the Royal Society. There are to be found among Hooke's papers, in the possession of the Royal Society, some notes of observations made by him for the use of Newcomen on Papin's boasted method of transmitting to a great distance the action of a mill by means of pipes. Papin's project was to employ the mill to work two air pumps of great diameter. The cylinders of these pumps were to communicate by means of pipes with equal cylinders furnished with pistons in the neighbourhood of a mine. The pistons were to be connected by means of levers with the piston-rods of the mine. Therefore, when the piston of the air pumps at the mill was drawn up by the engine the corresponding piston at the side of the mine would be pressed down by the atmosphere, and thus would raise the piston-rod in the mine and throw up the water. It would appear from these notes that Dr. Hooke dissuaded Newcomen from erecting a machine on this principle, of which he saw the fallacy.

It is highly probable that, in the course of his labours and speculations, it occurred to Newcomen that the vacuum he so much desired to create might be produced by steam, and that this gave rise to his new principle, and the construction of his steam engine. He saw the defects of Savery's engine, and laboured to correct them. Savery, however, claimed the invention as his own, which lay at the root of Newcomen's improvements; and Newcomen, being a Quaker, and averse from contention, and moreover glad to be assisted by Savery's wide circle of acquaintances, was content to share the honours and the profits with Savery.

Switzer, who knew both, says: "Mr. Newcomen was as early in his invention as Mr. Savery was in his; only, the latter being nearer the Court, had obtained the patent before the other knew it, on which account Mr. Newcomen was glad to come in as a partner to it."[3]
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Savery had created his vacuum by the condensation of steam in a closed vessel by dashing cold water against it. Papin had created his vacuum by exhausting the air in a cylinder, fitted with a piston, by means of an air pump. What Newcomen did was to combine both systems. Instead of employing Savery's closed vessel, he made use of Papin's cylinder fitted with a piston, but worked by the condensation of steam, still employing the clumsy system of dashing cold water against the cylinder.

Whilst the engine was still in its trial state an accident occurred that led to another change in the mode of condensation. It was this. In order to keep the cylinder as free from air as possible, great pains were taken to prevent it from passing down with the piston, and to keep the cylinder air-tight, water was employed to lie above the place where the piston passed up or down.

At one of the early trials the inventors were surprised to see the engine make several rapid strokes, and on looking into the cause found that there was a small hole in the piston, which allowed a jet of cold water to penetrate within, and that this acted as a rapid condenser of the steam.

A new light suddenly broke upon Newcomen. The idea of condensing the steam, and so producing a vacuum by injecting cold water into the receiver, instead of splashing it against the outside, at once occurred to him; and he proceeded to embody the principle which this accident had suggested, as part of his machine.

Another improvement was due to another accident, if so it may be termed. To keep the machine in action a man or boy had to be employed in turning alternately two taps, one admitting the steam into the cylinder, the other admitting the cold jet into it to condense it.

The story has been often told how that a boy named Humphry Potter was planted beside the engine to turn the cocks, and found that this was excessively tedious and monotonous work, and being a shrewd lad, observing the alternate ascent and descent of the beam above his head, worked by the piston, he thought that by attaching to the beam the levers that governed the cocks, that would do the work for him. The result was the contrivance of what he called the scoggan, consisting of a catch, worked at first by strings, and afterwards by rods, that did the work automatically. This story has however been discredited. See Galloway's Steam Engine, 1881.

"Thus, step by step," says Mr. Smiles, "Newcomen's engine grew in power and efficiency, and became more and more complete as a self-acting machine. It will be observed that, like all other inventions, it was not the product of any one man's ingenuity, but of many. One contributed one improvement, and another another. The essential features of the atmospheric engine were not new. The piston and cylinder had been known as long ago as the time of Hero (222-205 B.C.). The expansive force of steam and the creation of a vacuum by its condensation had been known to the Marquess of Worcester, Savery, Papin, and many more.

"Newcomen merely combined in his machine the result of their varied experience, and, assisted by the persons who worked with him, down to the engine-boy Potter, he advanced the inventions several important stages, so that the steam-engine was no longer a toy or a scientific curiosity, but had become a powerful machine capable of doing useful work."[4] In 1712 Newcomen and his partner, Cawley, contracted to erect an engine at Wolverhampton. Next they erected two engines near Newcastle. The fourth was put up at Leeds in 1714. The fifth was erected in Cornwall at Wheal Fortune in 1720, and was on a larger scale than any previously constructed, having a cylinder of nearly four feet in diameter, and its performance was regarded as extraordinary, since it made fifteen strokes a minute, and drew up at each stroke a hogshead of water from a depth of 180 feet.

Thomas Savery was a captain of military engineers in 1702, and in 1705 he published a translation of Cohorn's work on fortification. In the same year he was appointed Treasurer of the Hospital for Sick and Wounded Seamen. In 1714, by the favour of Prince George of Denmark, he was given the surveyorship to the waterworks at Hampton Court; but he died in the course of the following year, 15 May, 1715.

The date of Newcomen's death has been already mentioned. Engines of his pattern continued to be erected long after his death, till there was scarcely a tin or copper mine of any importance in Cornwall that had not one or more of such engines at work, and the gaunt and ugly ruins of the engine-houses disfigure the landscape throughout the mining districts of Cornwall.

In 1882 Louis Figuier produced a five-act play at the Gaieté in Paris on Denis Papin. According to this version, Papin, who was a Huguenot, having fled to London with his family after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, abandoned wife and family to go to Germany, there to pursue his scientific investigations. When skimming a pot, he noticed the force that raised the lid, and conceived the idea of the power of steam.

He next set about contriving a model of a steamboat, and as that was successful, he constructed another on a large scale on the Weser, which was hacked to pieces by the boatmen, who were incited to this act of vandalism by a harpy of the name of Barbara. Papin returned to London, where his wife and son, he learned, had died during his ten years' absence, and there, when reduced to the utmost distress, he learned that a Dartmouth locksmith named Thomas Newcomer [sic] had invented an engine in which steam was employed as a motive power. Papin then begged his way to Dartmouth, and recognized in Newcomer his son, whom he had supposed to be dead. The young man had been led to this invention by information he had found in drawings and writings of his father that had been left behind when he went to Germany. Papin did not make himself known, however, but allowed his son to reap all the honour and reward of his discovery. In the last scene Newcomer's pump is being tried on the Thames in the presence of the Lord Mayor and Corporation of London, when Barbara and the Weser boatmen, having crossed the "silver streak" for the purpose, cripple the machine by cutting some cord that prevents the valve opening, and Papin, who has perceived this, rushes forward to avert an explosion, and falls a victim to his generous devotedness, for the boiler bursts just as he reaches it; he dies in his son's arms, and Newcomer proclaims to the Lord Mayor and the world generally that all the honour of the invention and application of steam is due to his father, a Frenchman—a very satisfactory conclusion for a French audience.[5]

The French continue to claim for their countryman the glory of being the inventor of the modern steam engine. The system of the Marquess of Worcester was propulsion of cold water by the introduction of a blast of steam. Papin suggested the use of a vacuum formed by condensation of steam, so as to work a piston; and this vacuum in a cylinder he formed first by exploding gunpowder in it; and, as this did not answer, by removing the fire every time the condensation was required—a clumsy and impracticable method. Savery formed the vacuum first by dashing cold water against the cylinder, then by forming an outer ring of cold water about the receiver; but this did not answer well, as this body of water rapidly heated. Moreover, he did not adopt the piston, but drew up the water from mines by suction. Then came Newcomen, who adapted the piston in a cylinder to Savery's engine; and finally Newcomen and Savery together discovered how to chill and condense the steam by an injection of cold water. Papin undoubtedly suggested the leading lines on which the steam engine was to be constructed, but he was unable effectually to apply his ideas or to rectify defects in such machines as he suggested. The solution was due to Newcomen and Savery.

  1. Reprinted in the Journal of the Royal Institute of Cornwall, 1904.
  2. Worthy (C.), Devonshire Parishes, II, pp. 371-4. Exon., 1888.
  3. Switzer, Introduction to Hydrostatics and Hydraulics, p. 342.
  4. Smiles, Lives of Boulton and Watt, pp. 62-8. London, 1865.
  5. Pengelly (W.), "Notes on Slips," in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1882.