We have traced the rather slow and tortuous evolution of the human species in the struggle for energy. We noticed in the last lesson that, with the learning to use the energy contained in coal, there seemed to be a quickening of the tempo of human affairs. Coal provided heat for domestic purposes, and for glass making. After 1745 coal was made into coke for the smelting of iron. The increasing uses for coal created a greater and greater demand for more coal. The increased rate of mining operations caused mining to be carried on at greater depths, with consequent pumping problems of continuously increasing magnitude. As we have pointed out, the use of as many as 100 horses, working on treadmills, created costs of upkeep for the horses which threatened to overbalance the proceeds from selling the coal. It was imperative that a better and cheaper method of pumping be devised. One of the first of these was that of Thomas Savery.

Development of the Steam Engine. Savery, in 1698, devised an engine consisting of a boiler and two steam expansion chambers, equipped with suitable valves operated by hand. These chambers were filled with water, and when the steam was turned into each of them alternately, water was forced upward; then, with the bottom valve open, and the steam inlet turned off, the condensation of the steam in the chamber produced a vacuum which sucked more water from the mine.

This engine was not very satisfactory and was followed shortly after by the ‘atmospheric engine’ of Newcomen and Cawley in the year 1705. This engine consisted of a rocking beam, to one end of which was attached a pump rod and to the other a piston in a vertical cylinder. When steam was admitted to the cylinder the piston was lifted, and the pump rod lowered; next, water was injected into the cylinder to condense the steam, thus creating a vacuum below the piston, so that the atmospheric pressure on the top side of the piston forced it back down, lifting the pump rod, and thereby pumping water. Thus, the work stroke was done, not by the steam, but by the pressure of the atmosphere, hence the name ‘atmospheric engine’.

At first the valves of this engine were operated by hand, but this became tedious; and later, so the story goes, the boy who operated the valves became tired, and devised a system of strings attached to the rocking beam in such a manner that they opened and closed the valves automatically.

Such was the rate of progress at this time that it was not until 1769 that any material improvement was made on this engine. In that year James Watt invented a condenser so that the hot steam could be exhausted from the cylinder and condensed in a chamber outside, instead of cooling the cylinder down each time, as had been done previously. In 1782, Watt still further improved the steam engine by making it double acting, that is, steam was admitted alternately, first at one end of the cylinder, and then at the other, thus driving the piston in both its up and down strokes. At about this time the flywheel was added to the simple rocking beam.

By this time, the age of power was well begun, and more and more uses were found to which the steam engine could be applied, as will be pointed out presently. Individual engines were made continuously larger. First there was only the single cylinder, then there developed successively the double-, triple-, and quadruple- expansion types of engines. The reciprocating engine reached its climax toward the end of the nineteenth century in the Corliss type. Of these the largest stationary units reached upwards of 10,000 kw and stood with their cylinder heads approximately 30 feet above the axis of their cranks.

In 1889, De Laval, of Sweden, devised a steam turbine to operate his cream separator. In 1884 Sir Charles Parsons built a steam turbine which delivered 10 h.p. at 18,000 revolutions per minute. In 1897 steam turbines were installed in a small steamship named the Turbinia. In 1903 a 5,000 kw. turbine was installed in one of the central electric power stations of Chicago.

From that time on this form of steam engine has increased rapidly in size and usefulness. By 1915 a 35,000 kw. unit was installed in Philadelphia. In 1929, in the Hell Gate Station, New York City, units of 160,000 kw. Each were installed. These represent the largest single engines ever built. If 1 horsepower for 8 hours represents the work of 10 strong men, then for 24 hours 1 horsepower would represent the work of 30 men working 8 hours each. One kilowatt is one and one-third horsepower, and hence represents the work of 40 men for 1 day. Thus, one of these engines does the work in one day’s time of 6,400,000 strong men. There are 5 of these engines in New York City at the present time. These 5 engines when running to capacity, do work equivalent to 32,000,000 strong men working at hard labor for 8 hours a day each.

The Railroad. Not only did coal mining create a problem of pumping water, but the coal had to be hauled varying distances over bad ground, either to the market or else to the seashore to be loaded in ships and transported by water. This created a serious problem in transportation, and early in the sixteenth century rails of timber were laid at the coal mines of Newcastle-on-Tyne. Carts carrying 4 to 5 tons of coal each were drawn by horses on these rails. These first rails were secured to cross timbers. In 1735 it was found that the rails could be made stronger and to wear longer if iron bars were fastened to their tops. In 1767 cast iron rails, 4 to 5 feet long, were substituted for the entire wooden rail. These cast iron rails were brittle and troublesome because of their short length and numerous joints. In 1820 these were replaced by wrought iron rails, 15 feet in length. Such were the first railroads.

The development of the steam engine and the rapid rate of increase in the use of coal led naturally to the casting about for a new kind of motive power. In 1804 Richard Trevithick built a steam locomotive which hauled 10 tons of coal at 5 miles per hour. In 1814 George Stevenson built an important locomotive that hauled 35 tons of coal four miles per hour up a 1 to 450 grade.

By 1825 there were all together 28 railroads in Great Britain, mostly mine roads, with a total mileage of 450 miles. In that year, the Stockton & Darlington Railway, 25 miles long, was put into operation. This may be considered the first modern steam operated railway.

At the opening of this road, a Stevenson engine hauled a train consisting of 22 wagons of passengers and 12 wagons of coal, totaling 90 tons, at an average speed of 5 miles per hour. Later this road reverted largely to horses for motive power, reserving the steam locomotives for hauling freight, chiefly coal. By 1830 the Liverpool & Manchester Railroad, 35 miles long, was operating with an improved type of locomotive, and from that time on mechanical motive power has been indisputably established.

In the United States, as in England, railroads were first built for horse drawn vehicles. In 1829 a 16-mile road from Honesdale to Carbondale, Pennsylvania, was built, and a steam locomotive of English manufacture introduced. The following year a 13-mile road from Baltimore to Prescott, Maryland, was opened.

The Steamboat. Similar advances were made in water transportation. In 1785 John Fitch ran the first successful steamboat in America. After this followed, in rapid succession, numerous other small steamers in inland and coastwise waters, both in Europe and the United States. In 1819 the S.S. Savannah was the first steam-propelled ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. By 1838, two ships, the S.S. Great Eastern and S.S. Sirius, were in regular service. In 1837 and 1838 John Ericson introduced in England the screw propeller. This gradually replaced the paddle wheels, so that by 1870 all ocean-going steam-driven vessels were propelled by screws.

While the advances made in both railroads and in steamships since 1900 have been great, the trend has been one more of orderly evolutionary development, rather than of radical departures. Electrification of steam railroads was under way prior to 1910. This has been followed by Diesel-electric engines, and by steam locomotives of continually greater size, and of greater thermal efficiency. At the present time we seem to be on the threshold of a major departure in railroad equipment in the form of high speed, lightweight, streamlined trains propelled by Diesel engines.

The Automobile. The more modern forms of transportation are the automobile and the airplane. The beginnings of efforts to construct a self-propelled road vehicle were practically coincident with the locomotive. In the period from 1827 to 1836 Walter Hancock, in England, constructed several steam wagons that carried passengers over carriage roads. One of these is reported to have run 20 weeks, traveling a distance of 4,200 miles, and carrying 12,000 passengers. With the rise of railroads, motor vehicles for road use were virtually abandoned until about 1885, when the development of the gas engine by Daimler and others led to the motorization of the bicycle and then of the carriage. About 1895 the development of motor vehicles propelled by internal combustion engines or by electric motors began in earnest, leading to the modern automotive transportation.

Transportation by Air. The first abortive attempts at transportation by air date back to the early balloons, about the year 1783. Finally, in 1896, Langley’s heavier-than-air machine made the first successful flight of its kind. In 1903 the Wright Brothers were the first to take off in a heavier-than-air machine propelled by its own power. Since that time aviation has developed by leaps and bounds, gaining particular impetus during the World War. Planes have become bigger and faster, and the cruising radius has progressively increased.


In the space here it is manifestly impossible to more than scratch the surface of the vast field of technological developments that have taken place since the first feeble beginnings.

Among the first industrial equipment to use power from steam engines was that of the textile industry. The changes wrought here were so great as to be characterized in history as the Industrial Revolution of the latter part of the eighteenth century. Corresponding developments beginning at various times can be traced in communications—telegraph, telephone, radio, and television.

It becomes evident that our Industrial Revolution of the last two hundred years is a development radically different from that of any preceding period of the earth’s history.  And compared with which all earlier developments are insignificant in magnitude. Each development has come, not as a thing of itself, but only as a part of the picture as a whole. Steam or water turbines could not effectively be utilized until electrical equipment had been developed. This latter, in turn, had to wait until Faraday, Maxwell and others had discovered the fundamental principles of electricity.

Viewed with regard to the multiplicity of its details it would appear to be an endless and hopeless task for a single individual to obtain even approximately a comprehensive grasp of our modern industrial evolution. When one considers, however, that all of the equipment is composed almost entirely of a small number of the chemical elements—iron, copper, lead, zinc, etc., and that furthermore, the manufacture and operation of the equipment requires energy in strict accordance with the laws of thermodynamics, the problem is evidently greatly simplified. In other words, if it be known at what rate the industrial system has required the basic materials such as iron, copper, tin, lead, zinc, and if it be known at what rate it dissipates energy from the energy sources of coal, oil, gas, water power and plants, all of the innumerable details are automatically included.


1698—Savery steam engine

1705—Newcomen and Cawley, steam engine

1769—Watt, steam engine condenser

1782—Watt, double acting piston engine

1820—W. Cecil, engine, 60 r.p.m.

1823—Brown, gas vacuum engine

1849—Francis, water turbine (size 6 in. to 18 ft. diameter)

1876—Otto cycle internal combustion engine

1882—Pearl Street, New York, generating station

1883—De Laval, steam turbine

1884—Parsons, steam turbine

1895—Diesel, internal combustion engine

1903—First 5,000 kw. central station steam turbine, Chicago, Ill.

1929—160,000 kw. turbines installed. Mercury turbine


1785—First successful steamship, John Fitch

1819—First steam-driven ship crossed Atlantic

1837—Screw propeller introduced (Ericson)

1897—Turbine engine used in steamships



1750—Cast iron rails, 4 to 5 ft. long, first used (1767)

1800—Trevithick’s steam locomotive (1804)

George Stevenson built improved locomotive (1814)

Wrought iron rails, 15 ft. long, first used (1820)

First modern railroad, Stockton to Darlington, England (1825)

First railroad in U.S., Honesdale to Carbondale, Penna. (1829)

George Stevenson introduced the ‘Rocket,’ improved locomotive (1829)

1850—First transcontinental railroad system in U.S. (1869)
First working electric railroad, Germany (1879)

1900—Electrification of steam railroads Diesel-electric locomotives

Other Vehicles

1800—Steam wagons, Walter Hancock, England (1827-1836)

1850—Gottlieb Daimler high-speed gas engine, Germany (1884)

Motorized bicycle (1885)

Benz, three-wheeled gas carriage (1886)

Geo. B. Seldon, patent on clutch and transmission system (1895)


1783—Montgoflier, first balloon, using heated air

1852—Gifford, first successful spindle-shaped gas bags, driven by steam engines

1884—M. M. Renard and Keebs, gas bag driven by electric motors, fed by electric batteries

1896—Prof. Langley, model aeroplane, driven by steam. Flight of three-quarters mile. First time in history that a motor-driven, heavier-than-air machine accomplished a successful flight

1900—Count Zeppelin, rigid form; capacity 399,000 cubic feet gas; driven by two Daimler benzene engines, 16 h.p. each. First means of passenger service in the air

1903—Orville and Wilbur Wright, glider fitted with a 16 h.p., four-cylinder motor. This machine made the first successful Right in which the machine carrying a man had ever risen of its own power from the ground

1908—Louis Bleriot, the Bleriot monoplane. This was the first successful monoplane. It was also the first machine to cross the English Channel

1910—Fabre, first practical hydroplane.  By the time of the World War it was recognized that aviation was strictly an engineering science. Since then, some of the most remarkable advances in the field of engineering have been made in this branch


1820—Oerstedt, made the discovery that an electric current flowing through a wire built up a magnetic field around the wire

1831—Faraday and Henry, discovered the converse of Oerstedt, i.e., that a magnetic field can be cut by a wire, and cause current to flow in the wire

1837—Morse invented telegraph system. This was the basis of most modern land systems

1876—Bell, telephone

1882—Dolbear developed wireless telegraph system, using electric static induction

1885—Hertz, Hertz’s oscillator; the real beginning of radio-telegraphy

1888—Lodge, developed a method of synchronizing two circuits, i.e., placing them in resonance

1896—Marconi developed a system, using the Hertzian oscillator, of radiotelegraphy for sending and receiving messages

1898—Braun developed the coupled circuit

1902—Poulsen and Tessenden, radio-telephone

1903—First trans-Atlantic wireless transmission

1907—DeForrest invented the three-element tube, permitting tubes to detect as well as amplify


1922—Freeman and Dimmel, A.C. tube, radio

1926—J. L. Baird, television


1733—John Key, flying shuttle

1770—James Hargraves, spinning jenny

1775—Richard Arkwright, roller spinning frame, using water power

1779—Samuel Crompton, spinning

1785—Edward Cartwright, power looms, using Watt engine, first for spinning and then for weaving

1793—Eli Whitney, cotton gin

No attempt has been made here to include the numerous inventions that have revolutionized the textile industry in the last century. The above merely indicates the initial steps that were responsible for the Industrial Revolution.


  • History of Mechanical Inventions, Usher.
  • Behemoth, The Story of Power, Hodgins and Magoun.