Smoky Machines: A 20th Century Revolution

No other gadget is so associated with inventors as the machines, apparatuses which show pretty well the human designing skills. It seems like a curse that humans imagine activities that exceed their forces; but if it turns out to be that, a curse, if that urge makes them cursed for their dream, also it's true that they possess an ability to invent mechanisms which allowed them to multiply their forces up to, sometimes, fulfilling those dreams. No sensitive person would ever imagine that is reasonable to build a pyramid, or a big wall using giant stones, like the Great Wall of China. However, Egyptians, Chinese, Aztecs, Incas, and Greeks built pyramids and raise walls, using forces that outperformed theirs. It's true that they mobilize large groups of slaves and serfs, but without brains, without gadgets which allowed them to improve, modify or direct their forces would have been almost impossible to build all the great constructions that we today admire.

James Watt's Steam Engine




The machines have been living with humans throughout the last millenniums. Machines to construct buildings and walls, and also machines to destroy them. Machines for peace, machines for war and machines to surprise the others. In many cases, we don't know to whom attribute the authorship of these early machines. We know some names from the remote ancient Egyptian and Chinese civilizations, responsible for building the Egyptian pyramids or the Great Wall of China. But we have to admit that these works had too many authors as it took for their construction, decades even centuries.

Thanks to the historians' attention, some names of machine inventors managed to come up. If we go back to the ancient Roman Empire age, we can highlight the Greek Plutarch, who wrote the biographies of many notable characters of his time, mainly politicians and army leaders. He dedicated to the leader Marcellus an extensive biography, especially interesting for us because it tells us the story of the Syracuse siege, a Greek city that lies on the current Sicily and which had shown support for the Carthaginians, the enemies of the Romans par excellence. Marcellus was appointed with the task of combating them in the 3rd century b.C., triggering the outbreak of the Second Punic War. The labor didn't look easy, given the position of the city, but it started to be seen differently thanks to Archimedes, one of the most influential Graeco-roman intellectuals, and he was well known at that time for having invented surprising machines, like the iron claw which was installed on the walls of the city of Syracuse to grab and break down the approaching enemy's ships. Marcellus could enter Syracuse, one of his soldiers killed Archimedes, but the intellectual became a legend for the Greeks and for future civilizations.

Machines didn't only become part of the society as war or defense weapons, or as tools that help humans in the construction of huge buildings. We also have records for gadgets used in religious and fest rituals. Among the Alexandrian engineers of Hellenism, the name of Hero stands out, to whom we attribute the invention of the aeolipile, also known as "Hero's engine", a machine that rotated when steam was injected. History makes him responsible for the design of a marvelous machine able to open and close the gates of a temple using the steam force from boiling water. Also, he wrote a book about mechanisms able to move, automatons closer to toys than to machines with an actual practical utility. Anyway, although Hero's works were not so important as Archimedes', they were studied by future engineers. In the following years, till our times, the creators of wonders were exponentially increasing in numbers, going from one court to another exposing their machines, like mechanical birds that sang or gadgets that produced music. The human engineer goes beyond the mere necessity, or they are able to convert the surprising into necessities.

The years passed and we reached a time where the machine was getting older. It didn't occur during the Renaissance or the Baroque, but at a closer age to ours, at the end of the 17th century and early 18th century. At that moment, nobody discovered anything special which hadn't been seen before. For example, it was not discovered the ability of the steam to create movement. We have just mentioned Hero's engine, but he wasn't even the discoverer of the motor capacity of steam, as many people before him knew already how the pot lids moved when you put water inside them and bring it to boil. That daily experience was present in almost all homes, but no cook was able to design the steam engine though. Actually, it was a French inventor called Denis Papin (1647-1712) who created a series of gadgets in which the motor capacity of steam was exploited. His inventions were nothing more than pressure cookers and they didn't have much of a success. His contemporaries didn't believe that those gadgets were exciting or attractive, but nowadays the invention of the pressure cooker is attributed to this man and those inventions are seen as the precedents of the steam engines.

The most valuable machines were always the ones which relieved our work efforts: the simple pulleys or the levers were already helping to lift or move heavy objects. The water currents and the wind force were also found useful to move the stones from the mills or drain the waters. The steam entered the cultural life in England in the 17th century and managed to stay. From then, the heat produced by coal (later on by the oil derivatives) became such a fundamental aid that, even today, it's hard to imagine a society without it. The steam-based machines were so successful and the European civilization depended so much on them that they spread throughout the entire globe and their remains are seen today as a threat. The story started, as we said, in England, a country rich in coal that, however, was forced to close many coal mines because the underlying groundwater currents made impossible the exploitation of the mineral. The underlying groundwaters prevented the workers from working.

The saga of the steam engine pioneers started with Thomas Savery (1650-1715), who patented in the London Parliament an invention to help miners at work. He even used the expression "miner's friend" in the patent as he considered that the machine would help them relieving the exhausting labor by draining the waters in the mines. The physical principle that he used to make his gadget work was pretty basic. Imagine a completely sealed container. Inject steam in that container and once filled, stop the entry of steam and use water to cool it down fast. A vacuum would be created. Imagine that the container is equipped with a tube with a valve that could be opened and closed as wanted. If the sequence of heating up and then cooling down is followed, the vacuum produced after the steam is cooled down, will draw the water up to the vacuumed chamber, draining the water. This is a very basic explanation but we are not here to explain the motor physics behind the steam engines. If this surprises you, imagine back then... Was this a new invention that would help to solve the problems in the mines?

It happens very frequently in the tech history that a first invention is destined to stay as a simple prototype. In this case, happened exactly that. Savery's invention spurred the imagination of others, like Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729). In this case, we are talking about a metallurgic who transformed the container into a cylinder and equipped it with a piston that moved upwards when the cylinder was filled up with steam and, downwards when the steam was cooled down with water. The creation of a vacuum made the piston go upwards and downwards, simple as that. This "see-saw" movement became a common characteristic of steam engines. Today, the engines designed by Newcomen can be seen in different technology museums. They are engines called "atmospheric" since they work with normal atmospheric pressure; they were not compression engines. The English landscape at the beginning of the 18th century filled up with immense buildings, as windmills without blades, crowned by columns of smoke emitted by the giant pistons that moved inside cylinders fed with the steam generated in the boilers. This happened first in England, later it spread towards Belgium and Netherlands, Germany and Central Europe and finally across the entire world. They were used to drain the mines, in the beginning, but the invention was just in its infancy. Soon, other inventions improved it up to the point when it started to be used in factories, railways, ships...

The most famous inventor associated with steam in its beginnings was the Scottish James Watt (1736-1819). His contribution to the design of the machine, not only meant an improvement of Newcomen's invention but also refined its style. This man wondered if it was actually necessary to heat up and cool down the cylinder successively, in each cycle. He came up with the conclusion that a lot of coal was being wasted in the process, and if the cylinder was to be maintained warm, and the steam was expelled through the cylinder connecting it to a container, always at room temperature, called the "condenser", it could save tons of coal. This machine, based on a very simple idea, multiplied by 5 the performance of the gadget. Watt's machines needed a capitalist, an investor, and that man was the English Matthew Boulton (1728-1809). They together founded a company that manufactured high-quality iron and built several models of steam engines based on Watt's initial idea, whose most important contribution was converting the "see-saw" movement into a rotary movement. If the stem of the cylinder was connected to a rod that moves a wheel, the steam engine could become an apparatus with multiple uses. Not only for draining water in the mines, but also for running cotton-processing machines, constructing elevators, moving all types of transports... What prevents these machines from running?

Thanks to Watt, the steam engines were ready to dominate the world and give birth to the industrial revolution, as well as the transport revolution.  They were no longer machines that moved pistons, rods, and levers, but also they could make themselves move. Now, it was only necessary to build adequate roadways for them.

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