Sunday, April 05, 2009

Steam engine

In simple terms, it is the vapor released when water is heated to the boiling point. Both colorless and odorless, this vapor can provide a powerful source of energy and pressure. During classical times, man began to experiment with harnessing the power of steam. Greek engineer Heron (or Hero) of Alexandria developed a simplified steam device called an aeolipile or "wind ball" in which steam power caused a ball to revolve. Although Heron thought of this rotating device as a novelty or toy, the design principle he used is similar to that of today's jet propulsion. In 1679, French mathematician and physicist Denis Pepin invented a type of pressure cooker called the steam digester - an early forerunner of the autoclave. Serious efforts to harness steam power were made in 17th century Britain when it became necessary to pump floodwaters out of coalmines. In 1698, Thomas Savoy patented a crude steam engine that accomplished this task. In 1712, Thomas Newcomen improved upon his partner's idea with the development of an atmospheric steam engine. Enter James Watt, Glasgow scientist, depicted in the image below in his shop. A Newcomen engine was brought to him for repair, and his experiments and improvements resulted in his 1769 patent that ultimately became the dominant steam engine design of the times. The first effective high pressure steam engine in the United States was designed and built by a little known Delaware inventor, Oliver Evans. His 1801 invention, detailed in the 1893 lithograph above, is largely responsible for America's industrialization in the 19th century. Steam engines were adapted to power early locomotives, steamboats, fire fighting equipment and factory machines; even though more sophisticated power methods have evolved, steam engines are still used for power generation today.

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