Thomas Newcomen

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Thomas Newcomen (born shortly before 24 February 1664;[1] died 5 August 1729) was an ironmonger by trade and a Baptist lay preacher by calling. He was born in Dartmouth, Devon, England, near a part of the country noted for its tin mines. Flooding was a major problem, limiting the depth at which the mineral could be mined. Newcomen created the first practical steam engine for pumping water, the Newcomen steam engine. Consequently, he can be regarded as a forefather of the Industrial Revolution.

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Religious life

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 certain 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.

Developing the steam engine

Newcomen's great achievement was his steam 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. A working replica of this engine can be seen at the Black Country Living Museum nearby.

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