Until the nineteenth century more stimulus was given by industry to science than by science to industry; and until the twentieth century inventions were made less often in the laboratory than in the shop or field. In the most important case of all, the development of the steam engine, the two processes may have proceeded hand in hand.
Hero of Alexandria, in or before the third century A.D., made several steam engines, but, so far as we know, these were used as toys or marvels to amuse the multitude rather than as mechanisms replacing human energy. Early in the sixteenth century Leonardo da Vinci described a gun which by steam pressure could propel an iron bolt twelve hundred yards; but his scientific manuscripts remained unpublished till 1880. Some of Hero’s Greek writings were translated into Latin in 1589. Jerome Cardan (1550) and Giambattista della Porta (1601) pointed out that a vacuum could be produced by the condensation of steam, and Porta described a machine for using the pressure of steam to raise a column of water. Similar applications of expanding steam were proposed by Salomon de Caus at Paris in 1615 and by Branca at Rome in 1629; and in 1630 David Ramsay obtained from Charles I of England a patent for machines “to raise water from low pits by fire . . . to make any sort of mills to go on standing waters by continual motion, without help of wind, waite [weight?], or horse.” 50 In 1663 Edward Somerset, Marquis of Worcester, received from Parliament a ninety-nine-year monopoly on “the most stupendous work in the whole world”—a “water-commanding engine” that raised water to a height of forty feet; 51 by this mechanism he proposed to operate waterworks for a large part of London, but he died before he could put his plans into effect. About 1675 Samuel Morland, master mechanic to Charles II, invented the plunger pump, and in 1685 he published the first accurate description of the expansive power of steam. In 1680 Huygens made the first gas engine with cylinder and piston driven by the expansive force of exploding gunpowder.
Huygens’ French assistant, Denis Papin, went to England, worked with Boyle, and published in 1681 an account of a “digester”—a pressure cooker—to soften bones by water boiling in a closed vessel. To prevent explosion he attached to the top of the vessel a tube that could be opened when the pressure reached a certain point; this first “safety valve” played a saving role in the development of the steam engine. Papin went on to show that the power of expanding steam could be piped pneumatically from one place to another. Moving to Marburg in Germany, he demonstrated (1690) the first engine in which the condensation of steam, producing a vacuum, was used to drive a piston. He suggested the possibilities of this machine for throwing bombs, raising water from mines, and propelling ships by paddle wheels; and in 1707 (precisely a century before Fulton’s Clermont moved up the Hudson River) he used his steam engine to drive a paddlewheel boat on the River Fulda at Cassel. 52 This boat, however, was wrecked, and the German authorities, comfortable in the status quo, and perhaps fearing the spread of unemployment, discouraged the development of mechanical power. 53
A similar apparatus had been offered to the Navy Board in England about 1700 by Thomas Savery, but had been turned down with the alleged comment, “What have interloping people, that have no concern with us, to do to pretend to contrive or invent things for us?” 54 Savery demonstrated his device on the Thames, but the Navy again rejected it. In 1698 Savery patented the first steam engine actually employed to pump water out of mines. In 1699 he was awarded a patent granting him for fourteen years “the sole exercise of a new invention . . . for raising water and occasioning motion by the impellant force of fire; which will be of great use for draining mines, serving towns with water, and for the working of all sorts of mills.” 55 Savery’s engines, however, proved costly and dangerous: they had gauge cocks but no safety valves; they were subject to boiler explosions; and though they were used in some mines to pump out water, the mine owners soon returned to the employment of horses.
At this point in the story we again meet Robert Hooke. About 1702, according to a reliable contemporary, he corresponded with a Dartmouth ironmonger and blacksmith, Thomas Newcomen, on the possibility of using the air-pump principle to produce mechanical power. “Could you make a speedy vacuum under your second cylinder,” he wrote, “your work is done.” 56 Apparently Newcomen had been experimenting with a steam engine; here science and industry visibly touched. Hooke was skeptical, let the matter drop, and again missed an opportunity. Newcomen joined with a plumber, John Cawley, to build (1712) a steam engine—with rocking beam, piston, and safety valve—that could be trusted to do heavy work without danger of explosion, and with fully automatic control. Newcomen continued till his death (1729) to improve his engine; but we may date from Savery’s patent in 1699, and Newcomen’s engine of 1712, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution that in the next two centuries would change the face and air of the world.