Fred Starr recollects: Who started the revolution?

Materials World magazine
2 Oct 2012

It is thanks to Jeremy Clarkson, the Top Gear TV personality, that as far as the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony was concerned, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the man who made the Industrial Revolution, even if he did not actually start it. Apparently, unbeknown to Jeremy, and overshadowed by the Jubilee and the Olympics, 2012 is the tercentenary of the birth of the Industrial Age and the modern world.    

Exactly 300 years ago, Thomas Newcomen set to work the first-ever practical steam engine. Newcomen’s efforts ring all the bells in terms of the membership of IOM3. He was able to have cast a passably accurate engine cylinder, which was conceived in the mineral-rich south west of England. The engine was built to solve a growing problem – as mineral and coal mines went deeper, drainage using men or horses was becoming uneconomic.    

Earlier this year, I visited the Black Country Museum in Dudley for one of the events marking the tercentenary, where a full-scale replica of Newcomen’s engine was at work. The Museum is close to where the first engine ran, the replica being housed in exactly the same type of building as the original. The building is really part of the engine, one wall supporting a pivoted beam. On the working stroke, the engine, hidden inside the building, pulls down on one end of the beam while the exposed end lifts water out of a mine using a reciprocating pump. All that could be seen from the outside was the mysterious up and down movement of the beam. No noise, no fuss. Just a waft of steam and black smoke drifting across the valley. A vision from the past of inscrutable, mysterious, man-made power.    

Every leap forward in technology, once assimilated, seems inevitable. But, being no steam engine anorak, I only went along out of a sense of duty, as a Council Member of the Newcomen Society for Industrial History. However, I was awestruck by the machine’s combination of simplicity and ingenuity – the valves being controlled by bits of rope, strung hither and thither. The masterstroke by the Museum was to have Thomas Newcomen himself show us around. If anything brought home how revolutionary the engine was, it was this figure in his smock coat, knee breaches and tricorne hat, someone quite at home on the deck of a square rigger. ‘Yes’, I thought, ‘It was that long ago’.    

Contemporaries could not credit Newcomen as being anything but a blacksmith. In fact, he was an accomplished engineer, building on the best that craft technology and experimental science could offer. His engine was essentially a modified water pump, but used the creation of a vacuum by the condensation of steam beneath a piston to produce power. Newcomen was clued up about the efforts of his rivals, Savery and Papin, to develop a steam engine, but he went for a design that was practical, avoiding the creep failures that bedevilled their high pressure machines.    

Without the development of the steam engine, it is difficult to see how the industrial revolution could have gained traction in Britain. Industry was becoming heavily dependent on coal, but as mines went deeper, drainage was becoming impossible. Without cheap energy, Britain would have remained an also-ran compared to France, a country with three times the population and an army and navy to match.    

It is incontestable that Newcomen’s engine stimulated the advance of metallurgy. As befitting engines coming from the West Country, the first cylinders were made of brass. But to generate more power, larger cylinders were needed. Cast iron began to be used, eventually reaching 1.8 metres in diameter. I doubt whether any founder would offer this today.    

Top hats were never my style, which is not the best reason for wondering whether Brunel was quite the genius that Clarkson thinks. But I could see myself in one of the three-cornered variety, in which my first move would be to doff it in honour of that neglected hero, Thomas Newcomen.