The Newcomen Steam Engine

A look at what is likely the oldest surviving steam engine in the world1

I have had the opportunity to visit the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborne, Michigan several times. This museum houses an immense collection of interesting items covering the history of key technologies related to transportation and one of the most fascinating items in the collection is the oldest surviving Newcomen engine. This machine played a pivotal role in ushering-in the industrial revolution around 1760.

The Newcomen Steam engine, the predecessor to the Watt engine, is one of the most interesting pieces of technology developed during the 1700's. This engine along with Watt's are called "atmospheric engines" because the steam was under only slight pressure. The real driving force of these engines was a vacuum created when steam is condensed back into water, or rather the pressure of the atmosphere on top of the cylinder.

Origin: see note at the bottom of the page The diagram at right (from Hogben's Science and the Citizen) explains the principle of operation of a Newcomen engine. In this drawing of a primitive engine (1712), the boiler sits directly below the cylinder. Steam is first admitted from the boiler to the cylinder. When the piston reaches the top, water is sprayed into the cylinder to cool the steam and hence form a vacuum. The piston is pushed down into the cylinder by the weight of the air on top of it (15 pounds per square inch of piston area) and the cycle is started again.

Image: See note at the bottom of the page

A Real Newcomen Engine from 1760

The following photographs are of the oldest surviving Newcomen engine. This engine, known as 'Fairbottom Bobs', was used to drain water from the Cannel coal pits close to the River Medlock, about half a mile from Park Bridge, Ashton under Lyne, in England. The name arose from the bobbing motion of the wooden beam. The engine, built in 1760, was used until 1834.

Photo of the original engine circa 1880s as taken from the Penine Waterways site - link below

This photograph, taken in the 1880s, shows the engine as installed, but already in a state of decay since it was unused for fifty years. This photo was copied from the Ashton-under-Lyne site, in north-west England, where the original engine sat. By the 1920s the engine had been neglected and had fallen into extreme disrepair. It was bought by Henry Ford in 1929 and brought to America where it is housed today at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, displayed alongside other machines which helped bring about change. Total output power from this engine is approximately 20 horsepower. The engine ran at an estimated 14 strokes per minute, had a bore of 28 inches, and a stroke of 72 inches.

I was told by a visitor to this site (Richard Holliday), who lives in the area, that the mine was about 200 feet deep. It mined the Cannel mines, which were part of the Fairbottom group of coal mines (the Mary, Park, and possibly the Stubbs mine). Bobs was part of the Fairbottom group of mines which included Fairbottom / bridge pit / Coperas house colliery (later woodpark) and the Bardsley pit ... all were coal mines in the middle coal measures, the only one to survive into the 20th century was woodpark colliery which closed in 1957 and was 510 yards deep. Today (2008), the area is pictured below (Photo by Richard). Clearly shown are the 2 capped shafts and the base of the chimney.

Photo of the Fairbottom Bobs site in 2008.  Photo by Richard Holliday

It can be assumed that Fairbottom Bobs was a two stage pump because of the position of the coal seams - mines would be pumped up to a lodge in the Park/Stubbs mine in the first lift then to the surface in the second lift as Fairbottom was the lowest and latest seam to be worked in the area.

Nearby the area of Bobs was a pit called Rocher Vale which also had an early beam engine, and in the area around Bobs there are 15 old shafts, perhaps many more. Ninety percent of these shafts were single shaft pits dug prior to 1800 and the Bobs mine used a few of these as air shafts. It was also reported that about 50 feet west of the shafts shown in the photograph of the area today (taken in 2008) in the river bed there are several jets of rusty water gushing up through cracks in the underlying rock beds as the flooded coal workings are at a higher elevation and the water is under great pressure ... staining the river orange.

The Engine Today ...

Newcomen Engine, 1760, Henry Ford Museum

The entire engine consists of a round boiler (to the left, as seen in the photo below) driving the main cylinder which sits behind the massive stone support for the beam. At the front of the beam is a two-stage pump used to pump water from the mine. This engine, from 1760, is a more advanced model than the one in the explanatory diagram and features an auxillary pump which filled a reservoir at the top of the support column to provide both the water spray to condense steam in the cylinder as well as an automatic boiler feed mechanism to keep the boiler filled with water.

"Original ??" ... due to the extremely decayed state of the machine when brought to the museum, some elements of the engine were rebuilt for the display. The original stone column which supports the beam was saved, but the wooden beam itself was rotted and so the one on display is a reproduction. Brickwork, like the short circular wall around the pump shaft, was reconstructed at the museum to portray the engine in it's original state. Finally, the boiler is not original but was scavenged from a different engine. Old photographs from the 1920's show Henry Ford on the site of the old engine just prior to removal with the old boiler beside the engine: it was cylindrical in shape and the original was, as evident in the old photo, rusted beyond saving (Although even that may not have been the truly "original" since the engine may have been moved once before)1.

Newcomen Engine, 1760, Henry Ford Museum
Viewed from the other side, linkages leading down to the mine pumps as well as the auxiliary reservoir pump are visible here. The reservoir pump keeps the reservoir on top of the support column filled: water in the reservoir is used for cylinder water injection (to condense the steam) as well as to replenish the boiler.

Newcomen Engine Boiler

Although this is not the original boiler1 (since several photographs of the engine at it's original site show a cylindrical boiler), this example would be historically correct for an engine of this type.
The idea of using a round boiler to hold the pressure was originally taken from beer brewers who used round vessels which could withstand pressure better than other shapes. Brick also helps concentrate heat from the fire to produce the immense amount of steam required by the engine. Even so, the Newcomen engine was inefficient and consumed copious quantities of fuel during operation.
At the top of this particular boiler (on the left) a pressure relief valve can be seen as well as a feed system on the right to keep the water level topped-up. On the earliest Newcomen engines the the piston sat directly atop the boiler but on later engines such as this the boiler was separate and was connected via a pipe to carry steam to the engine.

Newcomen Engine Steam Inlet Valve

Mounted beside the great cylinder (on the boiler side) is the steam inlet valve which admitted steam into the cylinder when it was at the bottom of the stroke. The valve, in the square box at the bottom of the vertical feed pipe, was actuated via the steel rod seen leading to the right. As the piston pressed into the cylinder a secondary arm, attached to the beam, also lowered - on this arm was a pin which tripped the valve 'open' allowing steam into the cylinder. The piston raised as a result of the inrushing steam and a second pin on the arm closed the inlet valve when the piston reached to top of the stroke.

Newcomen Engine Water Injection Valve

A similar valve to the steam inlet valve, on the other side of the large cylinder, injected water from a reservoir atop the beam support. Again, pins on the secondary arm tripped the valve open (at the top of the stroke) and closed again (at the bottom).

The water pump which this engine drove was a ganged, side-by-side, set of force pumps. A force pump uses a piston, sucking water from the mine into the piston and expelling it upwards. The suction stroke is only as long as the piston length, and is less than 30 feet, so water can be pumped from great depths (30 feet was the limit of pumps which came before this one).

Origin: see note at the bottom of the page

About 65 years after Newcomen invented this engine, James Watt made an improvement which was to improve the efficiency of the machine. The addition of a second cylinder, a condenser, allowed the main cylinder to run at a reasonably hot temperature without cooling off and pre-condensing the steam. This was the main problem with Newcomen's engine as the water sprayed into the cylinder to condense the steam also cooled the cylinder. Efficiency of subsequent strokes was hence reduced. Steam from the hot main cylinder in Watt's engine is sucked into the condenser cylinder where it condenses into water forming a vacuum in the main cylinder. The other problem with Newcomen's engine was the quality of the main cylinder. Being cast, the inner surface was rough so it was difficult to obtain a good piston-to-cylinder seal. Watt used bored cylinders (a technique developed around 1775 to make cannon barrels from a solid cast piece instead of two halves) which sealed better and so produced better vacuums.

Image: See note at the bottom of the page

Watt Canal Pumping Steam Engine, 1796

In this later Watt engine, a Canal Pumping Engine from 1796, the main cylinder seen here has not changed drastically from Newcomen's except that it is pre-heated with steam to stay as hot as possible. As well, machining techniques and materials had improved over time and so the cylinder was produced with considerably better precision than earlier Newcomen cylinders. The Watt engine consumed about one-half of the fuel of a comparable Newcomen engine and the engine seen here had an output of about 40hp.

Watt Engine Condensing cylinder

The addition of this small condenser cylinder, which was immersed in water to keep it cool, was the improvement Watt made to the Newcomen engine. The pipe at the lower-left of the photo led to the main cylinder - it was through this pipe that steam in the main cylinder rushed into the small, water-cooled cylinder when the outlet valve was opened.

To Watt's further credit, he invented the "Rotative Engine" in the 1780's. This engine transferred the up-and-down motion of a pumping engine into a rotating motion which turned a shaft. That engine found widespread use in factories everywhere and truly ushered-in the "industrial revolution".


More on the basic operation of the Newcomen engine can be found here in the Wiki entry. and more detailed information on this specific engine can be found in this Wiki article.

The Author

I hope you enjoyed this description the oldest surviving Newcomen engine, a machine which kicked-off the industrial revolution. A professor at Niagara College in Canada, my personal interests extend to the history of technology. If you have any comments, you can contact me via the link on my "Home Page" at the top of this page. Please refer to the 'Newcomen' engine on the subject line.

All photographs (except the original photo of the engine shot in the 1880s and the photograph of the site today) taken by Professor Mark Csele at the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, MI, USA.

Origin of the two diagrams: Lancelot Hogben, Science for the Citizen: A Self-Educator Based on the Social Background of Scientific Discovery, Illustrated by J. F. Horrabin (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1938), p. 555, fig. 247. A pdf is available here (75MB).

This page was updated on 2007/09 following a second trip to the museum.


1 The engine may have sat in a different location and moved to the site near Ashton-Under-Lynne from which Henry Ford acruired it and moved it to the museum in 1930. Records at the Henry Ford (Object ID 29.1506.1) indicate the engine may have originally been situated at the Norbury Coal Works near Stockport in Cheshire, sold in 1764, and moved in May of 1765. This "original" configuration drew water from a mine eighty yards deep and the engine was apparently sold as a lower mine was sunk and a larger engine required. If true, the engine was moved in 1765 to Ashton, nine miles from the original location.

More information on the possible "original" location of this engine may be found on the Poynton Collieries page.