Oct 14, 2022Liked by Anton Howes

Certainly NOT too long a post at all. Very engaging!

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Oct 14, 2022Liked by Anton Howes

Truly a great write up, Anton. It reveals the great depth of research and reasoning you've applied to this fascinating field.

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Oct 16, 2022Liked by Anton Howes

That's a very inspiring note to end on. I wonder what other inventions are out there, just waiting for someone to actually build them?

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Oct 16, 2022·edited Oct 16, 2022Liked by Anton Howes

Fantastic essay! Forgive me for forgetting, but I recall you mentioning you were working on a book, is it about the development of the steam engine and other industrial revolution era devices?

Also have to tip my hat at your archive spelunking. Both nauseating and inspiring how much you dig.

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I think that you are missing a part of this, specifically metallurgy.

Remember, the west only had melted crucible steel, which means a homogeneous steel, from about 1740, and you need this to have good piston rings to seal cylinders.

You cannot have viable high pressure steam engines without working piston rings.

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This was really fascinating.

I usually like his stuff, but Bret Deveroux (ACOUP) wrote a piece on the causes of the industrial revolution, that I wasn't sure what to think of:


Basically he argues it happened at the time and place, that it did, because Britain had a combination of super contingent economic conditions in the 19th century, a big weaving industry and a practical use for steam engines in coal mining.

Otherwise he seems to imply it could have happened anywhere with those conditions, and didn't depend on any special inventiveness.

I'd be interested if you find that plausible.

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Oct 28, 2022Liked by Anton Howes

Wonderful essay!

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This is really very interesting, thank you!

I, however, disagree on the causes for the long wait and argue that the primary reason why steam or atmospheric engines weren't adopted earlier was NOT the scarcity of inventors but the lack of an economic rationale for such an engine. To that end, I'd like to point out a remarkable study on the topic by John P. Murphy (2012).

His crucial observation, in my opinion, is that only practically free fuel at coal mine heads and the specific use case of pumping water from deep mineshafts made the Newcomen engine profitable. The first engines were set up at a copper mine near coal mines, but transporting the fuel was too expensive even at this location. Another data point: a Newcomen engine was purchased by a Swedish Dannemora iron mine in 1728, a little more than a decade after it had been successfully introduced in West Midlands. The engine was set up and tested but never used again. Murphy notes that the reason was that even in forest-covered Sweden, feeding the engine was just too expensive.

My conclusion from the above, and from what I know about the history of technology and the prevalence of simultaneous innovation, is that the geographical and historical accidents combined in England in a rare way that made early, very inefficient "steam" (or more properly atmospheric) engines profitable to build and operate in commercial use, not just as novelties. The main reasons IMO were

1. there was a great demand for coal

2. English coal seams, however, were largely below the water table, causing a need for solutions to pump water from the coal mines even at depths that were difficult to reach with e.g. horse-powered pumps.

2a. For instance, Chinese coal seams were apparently mostly above the water table, and gas explosions were a much greater problem than flooding - which would've probably advocated against the use of "fire engines"

2b. In some other locations, geography may have favored other solutions to the drainage problem. For a very long time, the preferred method for mine drainage was to drive an "adit" to a nearby valley, whose floor was below the mine bottom, and let gravity do the job. Obviously, this was feasible only in mountainous locales.

3. At coal mines, fuel was practically free, and the humongously inefficient early engines could still be more profitable than existing solutions, namely horse-powered pumps.

Without the confluence of these factors, I doubt that atmospheric engines of any design would've been adopted until perhaps much later. And this would've set back the cumulation of the necessary experience and user base needed for further and well-known improvements in efficiency, which finally made steam engines valuable in locations where fuel wasn't practically free.

I did my Ph.D. thesis on the development and adoption of one radical innovation in the mining industry between 1900 and 1950. It was remarkable to me how often and how early breakthroughs were anticipated but not taken into use because there was no pressing economic rationale for that.

Murphy, J. P. (2012). Energy, mining, and the commercial success of the Newcomen “steam” engine [PhD thesis, Northeastern University]. https://doi.org/10.17760/d20002721

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Jul 12, 2023·edited Jul 12, 2023

Great series! One question that I had throughout, is why did a high-pressure steam engine did not emerge before an atmospheric one? On the face of it, it seems easier. A high-pressure engine does not require the assumption of vacuum or the weight of the atmosphere. The pushing power of steam must have been noticed many times casually when a sealed vessel was heated while the sucking power of the inverted flask is trickier to notice and reproduce (as you mention in one of the anecdotes).

One explanation I've heard is that lacking metallurgy (as a different comment mentioned), but that seems insufficient. After all Europe had cannons for a long time which require withstanding much higher pressures (and higher spikes of pressure). The pressure difference could also be made similar to a Newcomen engine or the Savery engine. After all, 1 atm below atmospheric pressure is about the same stresses as 1 atm above (and the Newcomen engine likely achieved only negative 0.5-0.75 atm inside the piston).

The best I could come up with is the problem of controlling the pressure. With an atmospheric engine, you cannot exceed 1atm negative pressure, while the pressure in a high-pressure engine is unbounded. While machining and machinery design were likely advanced enough to make the basic engine, control mechanism such as the centrifugal governor only preceded the Newcomen and Savery engines by about 50 years (according to Wiki). Still, feels a bit weak. There was quite advanced clockwork by the 1500s (not to mention the advanced clockwork in the ancient world and the east).

Is there something else about high pressure engines that makes them that much harder to invent the atmospheric engines?

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