Origins of Steam

Steam is one of the oldest power sources known to man. The ancient Greeks were perhaps the first civilization to have central heating, with archeaology suggesting they had a crude hot-air heating technology 4000 years ago. They were also the first civilization to create a steam-powered anything, 2000 years ago.

Heron’s Aeolipile

Around the first century AD, there was a mathematician in Alexandria named Heron. He would write numerous books on geometry and early mechanical technology. His work also includes the first steam engine and therefore as good of a place as any for us to begin the story of steam.

The Aeolipile was a water tank placed over a fire, with two pipes coming from the top and running into a sphere. The pipes function as an axle and as a pathway for the flow of steam. There’s two bent pipes on the ball for the steam to come out. When the water boiled, it caused the steam to shoot out of the ball like thrusters, and spin the ball.

This was the first mechanical use of steam and the last one for over a thousand years after Heron’s death.

Vacuum Power

The story of steam picks up again in the 1600s. Giovanni Battista della Porta theorized that the state change of water into steam and back again would alter the pressure of a closed vessel. That is, this would increase or decrease the pressure. This idea if the foundation of things like pressure cookers (first invented in 1679) and all forms of steam power.

Porta’s ideas would be used to make a steam pump in 1698. Unfortunately it wasn’t very powerful. A vessel of water would be heated, filling it with steam. The vessel was then cooled with cold water from the outside, causing the steam to condense and creating a vacuum. This vacuum was used to suck water up out of mines. The problem was that it wasn’t particularly powerful. Chances are in the long run, this device would probably have mechanical issues from metal fatigue as well. It wasn’t a commercial success.

The solution to this was to use that vacuum for something more flexible. In the early 1700s, Thomas Newcomen would attach a piston to the combustion chamber. Now the engine would be able to create direct mechanical energy. This was the start of industrial steam technology. There was just one big problem: it was horribly inefficient.

In a Newcomen engine, the boiler chamber is cooled as well as heated. There is so much energy lost by having these competing interests occupying the same space. James Watt created a massively improved engine by adding a separate condenser chamber. Insulation and other elements ensured there was as little heat loss as possible. Watt would later add a second piston, because the engine was essentially idle during its return stroke, wasting time and power. He would also invent the engine governor, a pair of metal spheres that would swing outwards with centrifigal force at higher RPM’s, exerting a force on a throttle control to slow the engine down. A heat recovery system would use the exhaust from the fire and the excess steam pre-heat the water entering the boiler, further optimizing the system. The key was to eliminate waste, and Watt did that everywhere.

Watt would invent the measurement of Horse Power to rate his engines’ performance. At the time, mechanical pumps were operated by hand and animals, typically horses. A 1 Horse Power engine could replace one horse. An 8 horse power engine could do the work of 8 horses. Eventually, the Watt unit of electricity would be named after him. His work in improving efficiency eventually resulted in an 80% decrease in fuel consumption for the same work.

Steam Heat

Heating didn’t exactly sit idle while steam power was being developed. In 1594, Hugh Plat proposed a steam-based heating system for greenhouses, but nothing significant came from the idea. By the 1700s, some low pressure hot water systems existed, pumping heated water through pipes. These were largely used for greenhouses, but a few outliers existed, such as Peter the Great’s Summer Palace’s water based heating system.

James Watt reenters the picture with supposedly the first high-pressure steam heating system, which he installed in his home and later in a Manchester factory. We’re unable to verify this, though it would make sense. Watt was a genius, an early support of water as a compound of hydrogen and oxygen, not an element in its own right. He had extensive experience with steam and latent heat.

Regardless of who invented the steam heating system, we do believe the steam engine played a major role in steam heating. As industrial facilities adopted steam power, it would only have made sense to use steam heating as well. The same boilers powering the machines would be plenty to provide heat for the entire building with a few pipes running around the building. More elaborate facilities with massive, central boilers could easily take advantage of this.

Steam Today

Things rapidly picked up after the 1800s. There were too many innovations for us to name. Steam power would be the heart of the industrial revolution, power ships, heat homes, and remains an essential technology even today. Steam is still used to heat New York City, it’s one of the most efficient power generation technologies for nuclear and even solar installations.


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