Fire and water…. acts of god and myths

John Child’s working model of a Newcomen Atmospheric Engine.

It was Thomas Newcomen who designed and built the first practical working steam engine in 1712; his invention changed the world. There is surprisingly very little known about Newcomen as a person and his first engine.

He was born 1664 in Dartmouth, Devon, to a merchant family eventually becoming an ironmonger by trade and a Baptist lay preacher. Newcomen and his partner John Calley built the first successful engine in the vicinity of Conygree Coalworks near Dudley in the West Midlands, the exact location has still to be defined.

It was most likely built from an eclectic mix of parts available to Newcomen as part of his ironmongery business; bits of scrap and allsorts, a BSA, but it worked. So why is it when people think of steam engines, the name James Watt springs to mind?

Newcomen was just an everyday practical hands on guy, he was not a member of the intellectual elite, the ‘intelligentsia’ who had always been ready to attribute bright moves by ‘their inferiors’ to other people. There is a myth that the intelligentsia explained away Newcomen’s discovery as an act of god. You do indeed question their ability to learn facts and skills and apply them, especially when this ability is highly developed.

You only have to read about John Harrison, and the obstacles carefully placed in his path of discovery by the academic elite while working on the development of the marine chronometer, a long-sought after device for solving the problem of establishing longitude.

John Child built this working model of a Newcomen Atmospheric Engine, and he bought it along to the Florette Festival Market in Lichfield in July 2015, for display on the stand of the Lichfield Waterworks Trust (the friends of Sandfields Pumping Station), it is a joy to behold.

John is a highly skilled engineer and an everyday, practical hands on guy. His model Newcomen engine is built from an eclectic mix of parts that you would find in any ironmongery shop. There are parts of locks, door handles, ceiling roses, baked bean tins, hopper heads and amplifiers, but it works.

By a strange coincidence, it was when James Watt, who was an instrument maker at the time, was trying to repair a broken model Newcomen engine and accidently allowed some melting solder let cold water into the cylinder, thus creating an instantaneous vacuum. An act of god?

Watt quickly realised the energy efficiency saving that could be made, by not have the cylinder cycle through hot to cold on each stroke, and the rest is history, or so it seems….

A very special thanks’ to John Child for ringing his amazing steam engine to Lichfield.



Lichfield Waterworks Trust

Lichfield Discovered

A full sized working replica of a Newcomen engine can be seen here

The only remaining Newcomen engines still in its original location


About Morturn

Historian – Photographer – Filmmaker Retired construction professional with a passion for public, social and industrial history. I believe in equality, dignity and integrity for all. Don’t like people who try to belittle the ambitions of others. I am of the opinion that my now life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.
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3 Responses to Fire and water…. acts of god and myths

  1. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:


  3. Pingback: Beaming | Lichfield Lore

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