Who Invented the Steam Engine?

Who Invented the Steam Engine?

Primitive steams engines go back to at least the First Century AD. However, it would take about 1,600 years for anyone to invent a steam engine that could be used for practical purposes, and even longer still for inventors to apply them to rockets.

A Greek mathematician and engineer named Hero of Alexandria, who lived in Roman Egypt between 10 and 70 AD, provided the first known description of a steam engine called an aeolipile. This device consisted of a boiler filled with water that was placed over a fire. Two pipes extended up through the top of the boiler and connected to a sphere that rotated on an axis. The sphere had two nozzles projecting from it that pointed in opposite directions.

An illustration of Hero's aeolipile

Illustration of Hero's aeolipile, Image Source: Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary, 1876

As the fire heated the water, steam rose through the pipes and exited out through the nozzles, which caused the sphere to rotate along its axis. Think of a pinwheel powered not by the wind but escaping steam, and you have a pretty good idea of how this invention worked.

You're also probably wondering, what practical use did this device have? None, really. It undoubtedly impressed the ancients, but it did little more than provide a bit of entertainment.

Flash forward 16 centuries to England. In 1698, military engineer Thomas Savery invented the first practical steam engine, a water pump that could be used for a variety of purposes. The steam engine that Savery invented had a couple of serious drawbacks: it wasn't very powerful and was prone to boiler explosions due to a buildup of pressure.

It was another English inventor, Thomas Newcomen, who invented a commercial viable steam engine around 1712 that could pump water out of flooded mines. This was a serious problem for mining operations at the time. Water would flood the tunnels, limiting the depth to which minerals could be mined.

The Newcomen steam engine, also known as the atmospheric engine, used the vacuum from condensing steam in a cylinder instead of expanding pressure. This proved to be much safer and more efficient than Savery's design. Newcomen subsequently become known as the forefather of the Industrial Revolution that his powered engine would help to launch.

Other inventors, including James Watt, would later improve upon his design. Steam engines remained the dominant source of power until the development of electric motors and the internal combustion engine in the 20th century.

As the Space Age began, enthusiasts were keen to apply the steam engine into an entirely new field. The steam rocket uses high-temperature water in a pressure vessel as its fuel. The water escapes as steam through a rocket nozzle to produce thrust, not unlike the way that the aeolipile works.

Thus far, steam rockets have been largely limited to rocket-powered bikes and drag racers. However, engineers have proposed using solar or nuclear heated steam rockets for interplanetary voyages. The discovery of ice on the Moon, Mars, and on other worlds makes this idea more attractive by providing easily accessible sources of fuel for these rockets.

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