Steam Engine: An Economic Force

In the history of the world, there had been a number of periods of immense technological inventiveness and economic growth. However, in all the previous cases, dynamism eventually faltered. In contrast, there has been an acceleration of the industrial revolution in the economy. One of the reasons has been increased interactions between technicians, scientists, and businesspeople. In addition, there has been access to a source of cheap energy—fossil fuels. The first machine to transform fossil fuel into mechanical energy was the steam engine; a device that set the Industrial Revolution apart from all previous periods of growth and innovation (Martin, 2004). Although the first steam engine was perceived to be the epic of technological innovativeness, it has undergone numerous changes to meet the demands in the economy.

Before the eighteenth century, the deep mines filled with water faster than the horse could pump it out. However, between 1703 and 1712 Thomas Newcomen developed the first practical steam engine, a crude but effective device that could pump water out of mines as fast as four horses. It was also faster than the initial transport system in the society. The Newcomen engine’s voracious appetite for fuel mattered little in coal mines, where fuel was cheap, but it made the engine too costly for other uses. The Newcomen steam engine operates by sue of the atmospheric pressure. In regard to its structure, it contained a heavy beam tipped down, with the cylinder below the steam piston is filled with steam, thus keeping the piston raised (Galloway, 2004).

In 1764 James Watt, a maker of scientific instruments at Glasgow University in Scotland, was asked to repair the university’s model Newcomen engine. According to Watt, the engine wasted fuel as its cylinder was heated and cooled in an alternate manner. He developed a separate condenser—a vessel into which the steam was allowed to escape after it had done its work, leaving the cylinder always hot and the condenser always cold. Watt patented his idea in 1769. He enlisted the help of the iron manufacturer Mathew Boulton to turn his invention into a commercial product. Their first engines were sold to pump water out of tin and copper mines, where fuel was too costly for Newcomen engines. Prior to 1781, Watt invented the sun-and-planet steam engines to power machinery in cotton and flour mills, pottery manufacturers, and other industries.

Watt’s critical innovation to the atmospheric engine was to add a second-separate cylinder called the condenser. To create a vacuum, steam from the heated cylinder flowed through a valve into the separate cylinder where cold water cooled and thereby condensed the steam. The great advantage of adding the condenser was that the temperature of the cylinder that contained the heated steam did not fall on each cycle (Lardner, 2008). The steam engine was based on the principle that water heated in a closed chamber will turn to steam and begin to expand in volume. This expansion causes pressure which can be used to move a piston within a cylinder. This movement can be used in either an up-and-down or circular motion to power and operate a wide range of machines.

By the end of the 18th century, over five hundred steam engines designed by Watt were in use. They were a key part of the transformation of the society from an agrarian culture to an industrial civilization, and provided the power for the inventions of the 19th century.

Technical Description of Steam Engine

The reliability of Watt engines was enhanced by Watt’s invention of one of the most significant devices of the industrial revolution—the steam engine governor. The governor brought the self-regulation of the enormous but variable heat energy of the engine. The governor was created to solve the problem of keeping the entry of steam to the engine consistent so that the engine could operate at a steady speed. For the engine to provide a steady input of power to a mill, the steam emerging from the boiler had to be of the proper strength, powerful enough to set in motion. The motion was upwards, moving the piston that drove the rods to which the power looms were connected. If the expanding steam dropped below a minimum, the engine would not provide sufficient power (Tredgold, 2010). Where the expanding steam became too powerful, the engine would run too quickly and self-destruct. It became clear that for steam to provide power efficiently and safely to the mills, some mechanical device was necessary to regulate the continuously varying pressure of the steam within the boiler.

James Watt’s steam-engine governor, developed in the 1780s, provided a simple feedback mechanism by which variations in speed of the engine continuously feedback a signal that controls the input of steam to the engine in order to maintain a stable state. Watt’s governor consists of two arms with a heavy ball attached to the end of each arm. These arms are attached on hinges to a single column that is rotated by the action of the steam engine. The balls were attached to a valve, which controlled the steam’s flow to the engine. As the power of the engine drops, the speed of the engine is reduced, and the central column rotates more slowly. As such, the hinged and balls drop. The valve and to the engine is opened more widely, and more steam enters the engine (Galloway, 2004). As the speed of the engine then increases, the hinged arms again rotate and the balls move upward, reducing the entry of steam.

The feedback loop continues in a permanent and fully automatic process of adjustment. The governor governs or rules the machine without the need of human supervision. As valuable as the Watt steam-engine governor was to the first stationary steam engines, the device was particularly valuable to the semi-powered locomotive as a moving steam engine whose speeds must increased and decrease as the strain stops at a station, then attains traction to begin motion.

Consequently, many of these boiler explosions were caused by the incompetence or inattention of human attendants who allowed the pressure to exceed safety limits. An automatic device was needed to supersede the all-too-human limitations. This simple feedback device became known as the safety valve or relief valve. If the pressure in the boiler is higher, a valve opens to provide relief by allowing the excess steam to exit, and thus prevent explosion (Farey, 2006).

Ina continuous feedback loop, a steam pressure in the boiler eases, the valve closes, allowing pressure to build again. The earliest safety valve used a weight calibrated to a certain pressure to maintain the power of steam. When the steam pressure reached a certain point, the weight would retract, releasing the steam. These weight-activated valves had a problem in that they could be activated when the engine hit a bump in the track. The installation of safety valves on the sides of the steam locomotive boiler did much to reduce devastating boiler accidents on railways.

Steam Engine: An Economic and Political Force

Until the development of the steam engine, the industrial use of power machinery was limited by the availability of sites for waterwheels.  The steam engine opened the way to locating factories near sources of transportation, coal, labour, and markets. Te steam engine not only helped move production from the cottage to the factory, it helped change the location of the factories. The steam engine was not a device that could be installed in urban households or cottages; it required a specialized facility, preferably near a ready source of coal. No form of household industry could contain the steam engine and the complement of machines it drove.  This, in turn, changed the size limits of the machines that the steam engine might power; they no longer needed to be small enough to be installed in a cottage, but could be made as large and complex as seemed efficient.

Steam engine enhanced industrialization in the West (Marx, 2007). The economic development of the region depended entirely on production of coal. This was done manually by pumping water out of coal mines. In an attempt to increase production in the economy, steam engine became relevant in coal mines. It contributed to the expansion of raw materials and fuel production necessary to an expanded production of finished commodities. Steam engines were also being used to power factory production by the time they were applied to expansion of transportation that is to ship locomotives and propulsion.

The construction of railways and construction of factories moved in tandem: this was inevitable as the Industrial Revolution was of necessity. The revolution in the transportation sector implied that perishable goods and raw materials were to be supplied to the destined target market within the stipulated timeframe. This was achieved, with ease, by us of the steam engine locomotives. In the early years, agrarian revolution era, the farmers produced manageable quantity of commodities as they lacked reliable means of transportation. However, after the industrial revolution, farming became rampant and the production increased. This necessitated a faster mode of transportation of the farmers’ products and commodities. As such, the need for the use of the steam engine as it was able to carry bulky food products and commodities over a long distance in a short time. Long-term economic growth has always been a central economic-concern. By the late nineteenth century, however, economist came to focus more on the question of economic efficiency, and they lost integrates in the issue of growth. Therefore, the efficiency in the economy was presumed to be realized when the economy would realize faster production.

Modern political and economic development has been associated with peaceful co-existence in the areas of jurisdictions. As the steam engine served as a tool for internal migration, the urban areas were populated as people migrated from rural to urban areas in search for labour. The steam-powered employees were able to relocate to the urban areas with ease, unlike the water-powered employees. As such, the impact that the steam engine had on urbanization was negligible. The most vital development attributed to industrialization includes the emergence and rise of labour market in the economy. The developments in the economy, due to the steam engine, have enhanced the development of the political sector in the economy. Such endeavours ensure that the jurisdiction area is imposed with relatively stable political developments (Mantoux, 2006).

In regard to the social force that spearheaded the invention and growth of the steam engine usage, the greatest force was the industrial revolution. The most conspicuous institutional development of the industrial revolution was the massive expansion of the use of steam engines in industries. Enterprises employing large numbers of workers in repetitive production ensured that the use of the technological advancement will enhance the shift from the handicraft to a factory economy. Most of the finished products, in the nineteenth century, came primarily from the workshops that were not using the new technology, steam engine, in their production. As such, the government’s intervention was aimed at ensuring that the majority of the farmers were acquainted with the available new technologies in the economy.  

Following these diverse implications of the steam engine to the social economy, it is apparent that there is difficulty in evaluating the effect of factory’s operations from the undertakings of the organization. The formations of independent households by factory workers widen the gap with their social and political associations and even their own religious sects. The social scientists have failed to generalize the effect of the steam engine on the society’s social well-being. As such, some of the industries have never turned completely to the factory system where it can sue steam engine frequently in its operations.

Consequently, steam engines were vital in the expansion of production of iron and steel in the economy. This ensured that the cost of production was lowered, and that it provided power for transportation of the manufactured products. In addition, it also lowered costs for mining of the raw materials, and for the mills themselves. To some extent, the mills created the demand for their own products; steel and iron were essential to the construction of steam engines, railroads and, in the last half of the nineteenth century, to the construction of ships. All this ensured that the economy attained political and economic stability.

In conclusion, the technological advancement in the society needs to be appreciated. Ideally, Thomas Newcomen and James Watt endeavour in enhancing development of the first steam engine ensured that the economy moved from the agrarian era to industrialized economy. The steam engine has undergone numerous changes since its invention in 1729. Such changes have been fuelled by economic, political, social, and technological force in society. Steam engines have been relevant in the economy, and it has been the start for further inventions imminent in the society.

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