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British Industrial History

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Thomas Newcomen

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Newcomen's House in Dartmouth
Newcomen's Engine

Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729)

1664 February 24th. Baptised one of two sons of Elias Newcomen (1637-1702) and was born in St Savior, Dartmouth, Devon, England.

Elias, his father, was a freeholder, shipowner, and merchant, and his first wife was Sarah (d. 1667). Thomas' grandfather was Thomas Newcomen (d. 1652), a merchant venturer and shipowner, who may have led the Dartmouth Newcomens away from the established church to join the Baptists.

His great-grandfather was Elias Newcomen (1547/8–1614), rector of Stoke Fleming, near Dartmouth, who married Prothesa Shobridge of Shoreditch in 1579. Shortly after the death of Thomas's mother, Elias married secondly on 6 January 1668, Alice Trenhale of Kingswear and she brought up Thomas.

Possible apprenticed to an ironmonger in Exeter.[1]

1705 Patent granted to Thomas Newcomen and John Calley for the atmospheric engine.

In 1707 Newcomen either renewed or took out new leases for a number of properties in Dartmouth. The chief of these was where he lived in North Town, abutting Higher Street in the west and Lower Street in the east. There were also some ‘cellars or ground rooms’ that may have been the site of his workshops, where he was to experiment. Newcomen's partner was John Calley (1663–1717), a glazier and member of an ancient Dartmouth family.

He was an ironmonger by trade and a Baptist lay preacher

This is a part of the country noted for its tin mines and flooding was a major problem, limiting the depth at which the mineral could be mined. Newcomen perfected a practicable steam engine for pumping water, the Newcomen Engine. Consequently, he is often referred to as a father of the Industrial Revolution.

He could be said to have been more than a lay preacher as he was a teaching elder in the local Baptist church. That he continued in business is almost certainly because the church could not afford to pay him as a full time elder. His father had been one of a group who brought the well known Puritan John Flavel to Dartmouth. Later one of Newcomen's business contacts in London, Edward Wallin, was another baptist minister who had connections with the well known Dr John Gill of Horsleydown, Southwark. Newcomen's connection with the Baptist church at Bromsgrove materially aided the spread of his steam engine.

c1710 Newcomen's great achievement was the Newcomen Engine, probably developed about 1710, combining the ideas of Thomas Savery and Denis Papin. It is likely that Newcomen was already acquainted with Savery, whose forebears were merchants in south Devon in 1712. Savery also had a post with the Commissioners for Sick and Hurt Seamen, which took him to Dartmouth. Savery had devised a 'fire engine', a kind of thermic syphon, in which steam was admitted to an empty container and then condensed. The vacuum thus created was used to suck water from the sump at the bottom of the mine. The 'fire engine' was not very effective and could not work beyond a limited depth of around thirty feet.

Newcomen replaced the receiving vessel (where the steam was condensed) with a cylinder containing a piston. Instead of the vacuum drawing in water, it drew down the piston. This was used to work a beam engine, in which a large wooden beam rocked upon a central fulcrum. On the other side of the beam was a chain attached to a pump at the base of the mine. As the steam cylinder was refilled with steam, readying it for the next power stroke, water was drawn into the pump cylinder and expelled into a pipe to the surface by the weight of the machinery. Newcomen and his partner John Calley built one of the first engines at the Conygree Coalworks near Dudley in the West Midlands.

1710 About the year 1710 Thomas Newcomen, Ironmonger and John Calley, glazier, of Dartmouth, … anabaptists, made then several experiments in private, and having brought [their engine] to work with a piston, &c, in the latter end of the year 1711 made proposals to draw the water at Griff, in Warwickshire; but their invention meeting not with reception, in March following, throu' the acquaintance of Mr. Potter of Bromsgrove, in Worcestershire, they bargain'd to draw water for Mr. Back of Wolverhampton where, after a great many laborious attempts, they did make the engine work; but not being either philosophers to understand the reason, or mathematicians enough to calculate the powers and to proportion the parts, very luckily by accident found what they sought for. [2]

A working replica of this engine can be seen at the Black Country Living Museum nearby.

1712 The first of Newcomen's engines appears to have been the one erected near Dudley Castle in 1712. [3],

One of the last engines to be seen at work was at the South Liberty coal mine at Bedminster, near Bristol. [4]

c1715 It is possible that the first engine was erected by Newcomen at Wheal Vor.

1725 Joseph Hornblower erects an engine at Wheal Rose.

Comparatively little is known of Newcomen's later life. By the time of his death, over a hundred of his engines, operating under Savery's patent (extended by statute so that it did not expire until 1733), had been installed by Newcomen and others in most of the important mining districts of Britain: draining coal mines in the Black Country, Warwickshire and near Newcastle upon Tyne; and lead mines in Flintshire and Derbyshire, amongst other places.

In his later life (at least), the engine affairs were conducted through an unincorporated company, the 'Proprietors of the Invention for Raising Water by Fire'. Its secretary and treasurer was John Meres, clerk to the Society of Apothecaries in London. That society formed a company which had a monopoly on supplying medicines to the Navy providing a close link with Savery, whose will he witnessed. The Committee of the Proprietors also included Edward Wallin, a Baptist of Swedish descent; and pastor of a church at Maze Pond, Southwark. Newcomen died at his house in 1729, and his body was buried at Bunbury Fields.

By 1725, the engine was in common use in collieries, and it held its place without material change for about three-quarters of a century. Near the close of its career its mechanical details were much improved by John Smeaton, who built many large engines of this type about the year 1770.

Attempts to drive machinery by Newcomen engines were unsuccessful, as the single power stroke produced a very jerky motion. Despite Watt's improvement, Common Engines (as they were then known) remained in use for a considerable time. Probably the last Newcomen-style engine to be used commercially — and the last still remaining on its original site — is at Elsecar, near Barnsley in South Yorkshire.

On 13 July 1705, at the age of forty-one, Newcomen married Hannah (d. 1756), daughter of Peter Waymouth of Malborough, Devon. Their three children were Thomas (d. 1767), who became a sergemaker at Taunton, Elias (d. 1765), an ironmonger, who married Hannah Waymouth of Exeter, and Hannah who married William Wolcot, a surgeon.

1729 August 5th. Thomas Newcomen died and was buried in Bunhill Fields, London but the exact place is unknown. [5]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Pamphlet by Thomas Lidstone (1821-88)
  2. J. T. Desaguliers, Experimental Philosophy, 2, 1744, 532
  3. The Engineer 1921/07/29
  4. The Engineer 1921/07/29
  5. The Times, Friday, Jul 26, 1929