Newcomen, Thomas (DNB00)

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NEWCOMEN, THOMAS (1663–1729), inventor of the atmospheric steam-engine, son of Elias Newcomen, was born at Dartmouth, and baptised at St. Saviour's Church on 28 Feb. 1663. His great-grandfather, Elias Newcomen [q. v.], is separately noticed. Thomas is believed to have been an ironmonger or a blacksmith, and he resided in a house in Lower Street, Dartmouth. He married in 1705 Hannah, daughter of Peter Waymouth of Marlborough, Devonshire, the marriage license, dated 13 July of that year, being recorded in the principal registry of the diocese of Exeter. He died, probably in London, in 1729, his death being thus announced in the ‘Monthly Chronicle’ for August of that year, p. 169: ‘About the same time [7 Aug.] died Mr. Thomas Newcomen, sole inventor of that surprising machine for raising water by fire.’ Letters of administration to his estate were granted to his widow by the prerogative court of Canterbury on 29 Nov. 1729. Newcomen left two sons, Thomas and Elias, and the will of the latter was proved 22 Nov. 1765 (P. C. C., Rushworth, p. 461).

Thomas Lidstone of Dartmouth, who devoted much time to the investigation of Newcomen's early life with very indifferent success, bought, on the demolition of Newcomen's house in Lower Street, Dartmouth, a quantity of the woodwork, and used it in building a house for himself on Ridge Hill, which he called ‘Newcomen Cottage.’ There is a street in the town named in commemoration of the inventor (cf. Lidstone, Notes and Queries concerning Newcomen, 1868, &c.) A view of the old house is in Smiles's ‘Lives of Boulton and Watt.’

It is not known how Newcomen's attention came to be directed to the steam-engine, but he seems to have been in communication with Dr. Hooke towards the end of the seventeenth century upon the subject of Papin's proposals to obtain motive power by exhausting the air from a cylinder furnished with a piston. In the course of some notes prepared for the use of Newcomen, Hooke says: ‘Could he [i.e. Papin] make a speedy vacuum under your second piston, your work is done.’ This is a very significant passage. It is asserted by Robison in his article, ‘Steam Engine,’ in the fourth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ 1810, p. 652, and also in his ‘Mechanical Philosophy,’ 1822, ii. 57, that the document above referred to was among Hooke's papers at the Royal Society, but it cannot now be found there.

Newcomen was associated in his inventions with John Calley or Cawley, who is said to have been a glazier; but the writer of this notice was informed by a Mr. Samuel Calley, who believed himself to be a descendant, that Calley was a grazier, and that he found the money for Newcomen. He is supposed to have been a native of Brixham, Devonshire. Calley died in December 1717 at Whitkirk, in the parish of Austhorpe, near Leeds, where he was engaged in erecting an engine (cf. Whitkirk parish register; Farey, Steam Engine, p. 155 n.) As regards the period at which Newcomen commenced his experiments the testimony of Stephen Switzer is important. He says: ‘I am well informed that Mr. Newcomen was as early in his invention as Mr. Savery was in his, only the latter being nearer the court had obtained his patent before the author knew it; on which account Mr. Newcomen was glad to come in as a partner to it’ (System of Hydrostaticks and Hydraulics, 1729, ii. 342). Savery's patent bears date 25 June 1698, so that Newcomen must have been at work at least some time before. Writing in 1730, Dr. John Allen says: ‘It is now more than thirty years since the engine for raising water by fire was at first invented by the famous Captain Savery, and upwards of twenty years that it received its great improvement by my good friend the ever memorable Mr. Newcomen, whose death I very much regret’ (Specimina Ichnographia, 1730, art. 12). It is often asserted by writers on the steam-engine that Newcomen took out a patent, or that he applied for a patent, but was successfully opposed by Savery. After careful search through the documents of the period preserved at the Public Record Office, the writer has failed to find the slightest evidence in support of either of these assertions. There is, however, no sort of doubt that Savery and Newcomen entered into some kind of partnership, the terms of the patent being sufficiently wide to cover Newcomen's improvements as we now know them. It must, at the same time, be remembered that we have no contemporary evidence showing what Newcomen's original invention really was. On 25 April 1699 Savery obtained a special act of parliament prolonging his patent for twenty-one years beyond the original term of fourteen years, so that the patent would not expire until 1733. The business seems to have been eventually taken up by a committee, and in the appendix to Bald's ‘Coal Trade in Scotland’ there will be found a copy of articles of agreement for the construction of an undoubted Newcomen engine at Edmonstone Colliery, Midlothian, between Andrew Wauchope, the proprietor of the colliery, and certain persons living in London, described as ‘the committee authorised by the proprietors of the invention for raising water by fire.’ The agreement is dated 1725, one of the conditions being that Wauchope should pay to the committee a royalty of 80l. per annum ‘for, and during and until the full end and period of the said John Meres and proprietors aforesaid, their grant and license for the sole use of said engine, being eight years complete next following and ensuing,’ which brings matters to 1733, the very year in which Savery's act of parliament expired. The John Meres mentioned was in all probability Sir John Meres, F.R.S., at one time governor of the York Buildings Waterworks Company [see under Meres, Francis]. It seems then certain that Newcomen's engine was regarded as an improvement upon Savery's machine, and one which was covered by the original patent granted to Savery in 1698. Attention may also be directed to an advertisement in the ‘London Gazette’ for 11–14 Aug. 1716 as follows: ‘Whereas the invention for raising water by the impellant force of fire, authorised by parliament, is lately brought to the greatest perfection, and all sorts of mines, &c., may be thereby drained, and water raised to any height with more ease and less charge than by the other methods hitherto used, as is sufficiently demonstrated by diverse engines of this invention now at work in the several counties of Stafford, Warwick, Cornwall, and Flint. These are, therefore, to give notice that if any person shall be desirous to treat with the proprietors for such engines, attendance will be given for that purpose every Wednesday at the Sword Blade Coffee House in Birchin Lane, London …’

According to Desaguliers in his ‘Experimental Philosophy,’ the second volume of which appeared in 1744: ‘About the year 1710 Thomas Newcomen, ironmonger, and John Calley, glazier, of Dartmouth, in the county of Southampton [sic] (anabaptists) made then several experiments in private, and having brought [their engine] to work with a piston, &c., in the latter end of the year 1711 made proposals to draw the water at Griff, in Warwickshire; but their invention meeting not with reception, in March following, thro' the acquaintance of Mr. Potter of Bromsgrove, in Worcestershire, they bargain'd to draw water for Mr. Back of Wolverhampton, where, after a great many laborious attempts, they did make the engine work; but not being either philosophers to understand the reasons, or mathematicians enough to calculate the powers and to proportion the parts, very luckily by accident found what they sought for’ (Experimental Philosophy, ii. 532). He then proceeds to state that the condensation by injection of water inside the cylinder instead of outside, according to Savery's practice, was discovered accidentally, and that the engine was rendered self-acting by the ingenuity of Humphrey Potter, a boy employed to mind the engine, who contrived a series of catches and strings worked from the beam, by which the several valves were opened and closed in due order. He assigns to Henry Beighton [q. v.] in 1718 the invention of the ‘plug rod,’ as it was afterwards called, provided with tappets for working levers in connection with the valves.

The accuracy of Desaguliers's account has been somewhat discredited of late years by the discovery of a copperplate print of an engine built by Newcomen in 1712. It was first brought to light at the loan collection of scientific apparatus held at South Kensington in 1876. It represents an atmospheric engine with wooden beam and arch-heads of the familiar type, and a plug-rod provided with tappets for working the injection and steam valves, being in every respect a self-acting machine. The cylinder was twenty-one inches diameter, and seven feet ten inches high. The engine made twelve strokes per minute, raising fifty gallons of water from a depth of 156 feet. From these data the engine was 5½ horse-power. The print is entitled ‘The Steam Engine near Dudley Castle. Invented by Capt. Savery and Mr. Newcomen. Erected by ye latter 1712. Delin. and sculp. by T. Barney, 1719.’ The explanatory matter is printed in letterpress on the side, the engraving having been printed from the copper on larger paper than required to give space for the letterpress. Only two copies are known, that shown at South Kensington being the property of Mr. Sam Timmins of Birmingham. The other copy, which is in the William Salt Library at Stafford, exhibits a different arrangement of the printed explanatory matter, and has in addition the imprint: ‘Birmingham: Printed and sold by H. Butler, New Street.’ The importance of this print in the history of the steam-engine was pointed out by the present writer in the ‘Engineer’ of 26 May 1876, and it is further discussed in R. L. Galloway's ‘Steam Engine,’ 1881, p. 84, where a reduced facsimile of the print is given. A facsimile appeared also in the ‘Engineer’ of 28 Nov. 1879. It furnishes the earliest known example of the beam engine, and is the first authentic record of the exact nature of Newcomen's improvements. The contrast between the machine described by Savery in his ‘Miner's Friend,’ published in 1702, and Newcomen's engine of 1712 is most remarkable. Newcomen invented an entirely new type of engine, and, though improvements were made in the details and workmanship, it continued to furnish the model for the pumping-engine for nearly three-quarters of a century. It was very gradually superseded by Watt's engine with separate condenser, patented in 1769.

The engine described by Desaguliers as having been made for Mr. Back of Wolverhampton is almost certainly the same as that represented in the print ‘near Dudley Castle.’ The dates exactly correspond, and the two places are only about six miles apart. On the other hand, Dr. Wilkes says that Newcomen ‘fixed the first [engine] that ever raised any quantity of water, at Wolverhampton, on the left-hand side of the road leading from Walsall to the town, over against the half-mile stone’ (Shaw, History of Staffordshire, vol. ii. pt. i. p. 120). This locality cannot properly be described as being ‘near Dudley Castle,’ but the reference may be to another engine. As will be seen by the extract from Desaguliers, he does not credit Newcomen with the invention of the self-acting gear, which was a very important improvement; but, as already pointed out, the engine near Dudley Castle was certainly self-acting. At p. 467 of his book he gives a slightly different account of the matter. ‘These discouragements,’ he says, ‘stopp'd the progress and improvement of this engine [i.e. Savery's], till Mr. Newcomen, an ironmonger, and John Cawley, a glazier, living at Dartmouth, brought it to the present form in which it is now used, and has been near these 30 years.’ This must have been written about 1743, the Royal Society's imprimatur being dated 17 Nov. 1743, which would take the matter back to 1713, a date approximating very closely to the date of erection of the engine represented in the print. The story of Humphrey Potter is now generally regarded as apocryphal, and it has been suggested that it was founded upon a misconception, a ‘buoy’ or float having been used in the early engines for opening the injection cock. One of the printed explanations in the print of the Dudley Castle engine runs: ‘Scoggen and his mate who work double to the boy.’

A minute technical account of the engine erected by Newcomen at Griff, near Coventry, about 1723, together with several plates, will be found in the work of Desaguliers already cited. The British Museum possesses a print, engraved by Sutton Nicholls in 1725, entitled ‘Description of the Engine for raising Water by Fire,’ which has much in common with the Dudley Castle engine. It is bound with a copy of I. De Caus's ‘New and Rare Invention of Water Works,’ 1704. Switzer gives a large view and description of a Newcomen engine, which he states is similar to that erected at York Buildings. Other engines are mentioned in Galloway's ‘Steam Engine,’ but it is not always easy to determine from the often imperfect descriptions given in county histories and similar works whether a particular machine was constructed on Savery's principle or on Newcomen's. To add to the difficulty, the two men are often mistaken the one for the other in consequence of their having worked together.

Desaguliers refers to Newcomen as having been the joint inventor, with himself and others, of a ‘jack-in-the-box,’ an apparatus to permit the escape of air from water-pipes (Phil. Trans. 1726, xxxiv. 82). Joseph Hornblower is there referred to as being Newcomen's ‘operator.’ Hornblower was employed by Newcomen to superintend the erection of his engines. He eventually settled in Cornwall, where his descendants became Boulton & Watt's rivals in that county.

[Authorities cited; Worthy's Devonshire Parishes, 1887, i. 370; Boase and Courtney's Bibliotheca Cornub.]

R. B. P.