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Chronology of the development of
TWO CENTURIES OF REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE
The Industrial Revolution
The Search for New Power Sources
Engraving of James Watt by William Beechey
By 1765, there were over 100 Newcomen engines in use in the coal fields of northern England. This was the year James Watt began to experiment and improve upon the Newcomen engine. Watt's first improvement was to produce a separate steam condenser. This meant that the cylinder remained hot all the time. The engine was now much more fuel efficient.
It was Watt's final development of the steam engine that changed the future of steam power. He saw that steam could be used not just to create a vacuum but also to move the cylinder under pressure. James Watt has discovered the basic principles of what was to become the steam engine.
In 1774, Watt went into partnership with Matthew Boulton and moved from Glasgow, in Scotland, south to Birmingham. This was a useful move for him because he was now at the center of the Industrial Revolution. He was surrounded by industrialists who could supply him with the facilities and equipment he required. Matthew Boulton was able to provide craftsmen who could build the accurate parts needed for the engine. The cylinders were cast at Coalbrookdale and were bored out accurately using John Wilkinson's cannon boring lathes which had been adapted for producing steam engine cylinders.
Although James Watt had had the original idea for the steam engine, he was lucky that men such as Wilkinson, Murdock and Boulton were around to contribute their skills to the final product. In 1775, Parliament extended Watt's original patent for a further twenty five years, to 1800. His original engine was only "single acting" since the steam only pushed the piston in one direction. The piston was returned by the weight of the driving rods.
Watt's engine was an immediate success as it was much more efficient than the Newcomen engine and it only used one quarter of the fuel. It was mainly used in breweries and reservoirs, and for pumping water from tin and copper mines in Cornwall. Watt's engines were also bought by the iron industry to raise the water needed to power the water wheels that drove the fans or bellows. Surprisingly few coal mine owners replaced their Newcomen engines with Watt engines. This was because Watt's improvements made little or no difference to them since they had all the free coal they needed to fuel the older, less efficient engines.
Watt's steam engine
Watt and Murdoch experimented further with the engine. As it ran far more smoothly than the Newcomen engine, they saw that it would be possible to use it to provide rotary movement. In 1781 they developed a system of gears and wheels, which they called the Sun and Planet, that converted the up and down movement of the drive rods into rotary motion.
The next development came in 1782 and was the "double acting engine". In this engine it was possible to use the steam cylinder to drive the piston in both directions. The steam engine had finally evolved. With this development, and later improvements, Watt had produced the basic power source that was badly needed. From this point on it was steam power that drove the Industrial Revolution.
Before their patents ran out in 1800, Boulton and Watt built and put into operation over 500 steam engines. Some of their first customers for the new rotating power source were the textile mills.
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