Born in 1663
Died on 5th of August 1729
It is one of history’s ironies that there is no known portrait of Newcomen, perhaps the single most significant figure in our industrial heritage, regarded by some as the father of the Industrial Revolution. Even his precise date of birth is unclear, though we know he was born in Dartmouth in 1663.
By trade Newcomen was an ironmonger, which in his case meant fabricating various iron components as well as selling them – his old workshop in Dartmouth is marked by a commemorative plaque. Much of his energy, however, went in to his unpaid work as a lay preacher and elder with his local Baptist church: as was the case with various other figures of the age in the rival Quaker sect, Newcomen’s Baptist contacts proved useful in his commercial life.
As an ironmonger some of Newcomen’s customers were tin mine owners. These mines suffered from flooding problems, and Newcomen came up with a practical solution, though it owed something to a previous design by one Captain Savery, with whom Newcomen went into partnership – Savery had a powerful patent, Newcomen a far superior design that used a vacuum inside a cylinder to drive a piston, the force created in turn driving a sturdy lever which operated a pump.
It is supposed Newcomen built and tried early models in Cornwall from about 1710, but the first known full-scale version was used at a coalmine near Dudley Castle in Staffordshire in 1712. Working versions can be seen at the Black Country Living Museum near Dudley, the Science Museum in London, at Elsecar in South Yorkshire, and in Newcomen’s native Dartmouth.
By the time Newcomen died, on August 5 1729, his engine had been widely adopted. It showed the way for steam power to be used, and also created a demand for improved steel to replace the expensive brass originally employed in making the machine’s cylinder, a factor in turn pushing Abraham Darby in his development of the blast furnace.
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