How Steam Engines Work

By: Marshall Brain & Yara Simón  | 

The Birth of Steam Engines

In 1698, military engineer Thomas Savery secured a patent for his innovative steam pump, dubbed “Miner’s Friend.” Savery’s steam pump comprised a boiling chamber that directed steam into a separate container. Inside, the container had a pipe equipped with a non-return valve extended into the water that required extraction. The cold water that was poured onto the steam-filled contained caused the steam to condense back into a liquid state. As this transformation occurred, a vacuum drew water from below through the pipe.

Drawing from Savery’s separation of the boiler and steam cylinder and Papin’s steam-driven piston, English inventor Thomas Newcomen was one of the key pioneers in the development of steam power. He introduced the atmospheric engine in the early 18th century. This practical steam engine pumped water out of mines and operated by using steam to create a partial vacuum in a cylinder, causing atmospheric pressure to push a piston downward.


James Watt further improved the design and efficiency of steam engines. In the late 18th century, he developed the Watt atmospheric engine, which incorporated a separate condenser and the ability to harness the expansive force of steam. His steam engine’s efficiency made them suitable for transportation, which helped connect distant regions and facilitated the movement of goods.

The birth of steam power and its subsequent advancements not only propelled industrialization but also transformed society. Steam power became the driving force behind the industrial revolution.