Age of Invention: The Interactive History of the Steam Engine
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I’m excited to announce something I’ve been quietly working on for a few months now behind the scenes. Some of you may be familiar with the explorable interactive articles of Bartosz Ciechanowski. They are so clearly written and so cleverly explorable, that they give an intuitive grasp of how many very complicated technologies work. My favourite is his article on mechanical watches. Be warned: if you’ve not seen these before, you’re about to lose a good few hours.
But his article on watches — which came out just as I was doing some research on the development of watches, and which proved an invaluable reference work — got me thinking about how great it would be to have something similar not just for how current technologies function, but to show how they changed over time. Wouldn’t it be great, I dreamed, to have a similarly intuitive way to explore and appreciate the process of improvement. And to correct lots of misapprehensions about the development of various technologies along the way.
As it turned out, my fellow inventions history fanatic Jason Crawford, who runs the non-profit The Roots of Progress, had been thinking along the same lines. (Drumroll starts softly.) So with the help of the Matt Brown we’ve been able to realise what is hopefully just the first small step of our vision. (Drumroll intensifies.) Based on my recent work re-writing the standard pre-history of the steam engine (drumroll crescendoes), allow me to present:
The interactive, animated, **Origins of the Steam Engine**
Alongside contemporary illustrations of the many devices, you can play around with the animated models, dragging them to see them from different angles. It introduces what are so far the only interactive and animated models yet made of a great many devices — from Philo of Byzantium’s 3rd Century BC experiments, to Salomon de Caus’s 1610s solar-activated and self-replenishing fountains and musical instruments, and the 1606 steam engine of the Spanish engineer Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont:
It also contains the first depictions of the 1630s and 40s devices of Kaspar Kalthoff and William Petty. These are the experiments I discovered about a year ago, which I hope will now be given a place in the canon of the history of the steam engine. (You can read my discussion of the evidence I’d stumbled across about them here.)
And it contains what ended up becoming a brief obsession on my part: the first depiction of how Cornelis Drebbel’s “perpetual motion” device at Eltham Palace must have worked. Although there have been a few attempts with modern experiments to show how some parts functioned, this is the first attempt at showing it all together, including how the internal clockwork was driven and periodically rewound.
The strands of development culminate in the steam engine patented by Thomas Savery in 1698 — a device that had hardly ever been depicted accurately, and which has never before been shown interactively. The much more famous Newcomen engine, revealed to the world just a few years later in the 1710s had — until now — always stolen the limelight.
The plan is to continue to develop the interactive articles. No doubt there will be a few errors that need correcting. There will also be some devices to add — a few are alluded to in the text, but not yet illustrated. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future someone were to discover yet more forgotten devices like Kalthoff’s and Petty’s. But I’d also like to trace the development of the steam engine even further, with a follow-up instalment taking us from the devices of Denis Papin and Thomas Newcomen through to James Watt and the high-pressure engines of Richard Trevithick, tracing all the lesser-known improvements and devices inbetween. And to start creating these for other technologies too.
So long as Jason and I can continue to find funds for our animator’s time and talent, then this is just the beginning.
But enough of my hopes and dreams and behind-the-scenes commentary. Go and explore the interactive diagrams for yourselves!