Following a summer in which we have commemorated 50 years since the end of British Railways main line steam, Brian Sharpe looks back to the beginnings of steam traction. In the first of a new series, he investigates the background to how the position of chief mechanical engineer came about in the early days of steam power – leading to the evolution of steam locomotive design.
The beginnings of the steam age were 100 years earlier than the first railway locomotives – in 1712, when Thomas Newcomen invented the atmospheric engine, the first practical device that used steam power to perform mechanical work.
The Newcomen engine was a stationary machine that was used mainly for pumping water out of mines. It operated in the opposite way to the accepted manner of the steam locomotives that were eventually developed from it, by condensing steam drawn into the cylinder and creating a partial vacuum that allowed the atmospheric pressure to push the piston into the cylinder.