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Introduction

The atmospheric engine invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, today referred to as a Newcomen steam engine (or simply Newcomen engine), was the first practical device to harness the power of steam to produce mechanical work. Newcomen engines were used throughout Britain and Europe, principally to pump water out of mines, starting in the early 18th century. James Watt's later Watt steam engine was an improved version of the Newcomen engine. As a result, Watt is today better known than Newcomen in relation to the origin of the steam engine.

Newcomen took forward Papin's experiment and made it workable, although little information exists as to exactly how this came about. The main problem to which Papin had given no solution was how to make the action repeatable at regular intervals. The way forward was to provide, as Savery had, a boiler capable of ensuring the continuity of the supply of steam to the cylinder, providing the vacuum power stroke by condensing the steam, and disposing of the water once it had been condensed. The power piston was hung by chains from the end of a rocking beam. Unlike Savery's device, pumping was entirely mechanical, the work of the steam engine being to lift a weighted rod slung from the opposite extremity of the rocking beam. The rod descended the mine shaft by gravity and drove a force pump, or pole pump (or most often a gang of two) inside the mineshaft. The suction stroke of the pump was only for the length of the upward (priming) stroke, there consequently was no longer the 30 foot restriction of a vacuum pump and water could be forced up a column from far greater depths. The boiler supplied the steam at extremely low pressure and was at first located immediately beneath the power cylinder but could also be placed behind a separating wall with a connecting steam pipe. Making all this work needed the skill of a practical engineer; Newcomen's trade as an "ironmonger" or metal merchant would have given him significant practical knowledge of what materials would be suitable for such an engine (e.g., due to high resistance against steam pressure) and brought him into contact with persons having even more detailed knowledge.

It is possible that the first Newcomen engine was in Cornwall. Its location is uncertain, but it is known that one was in operation at Wheal Vor mine in 1715. The earliest examples for which reliable records exist were two engines in the Black Country, of which the more famous was that erected in 1712 at the Conygree Coalworks near Dudley, This is generally accepted as the first successful Newcomen engine, but it may have been preceded by one built a mile and a half east of Wolverhampton. Both these were used by Newcomen and his partner John Calley to pump out water-filled coal mines. A working replica can today be seen at the nearby Black Country Living Museum, which stands on another part of what was Lord Dudley's Conygree Park.

Soon orders from wet mines all over England were coming in, and some have suggested that word of his achievement was spread through his Baptist connections. Since Savery's patent had not yet run out, Newcomen was forced to come to an arrangement with Savery and operate under the latter's patent,as its term was much longer than any Newcomen could have easily obtained. During the latter years of its currency, the patent belonged to an unincorporated company, The Proprietors of the Invention for raising water by fire.

Although its first use was in coal-mining areas, Newcomen's engine was also used for pumping water out of the metal mines in his native West Country, such as the tin mines of Cornwall. By the time of his death,

Newcomen and others had installed over a hundred of his engines, not only in the West Country and the Midlands but also in north Wales, near Newcastle and in Cumbria. Small numbers were built in other European countries, including in France, Belgium, Spain, and Hungary, also at Dannemora, Sweden. Evidence of the use of a Newcomen Steam Engine associated with early coal mines was found in 2010 in Midlothian, VA (site of some of the first coal mines in the U.S.). (Dutton and Associates survey dated 11/24/2009).

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