Post from Harry Hutchinson:
When I was in Ontario in May I did some of my favorite things: I tried some interesting local brews, of course, and also got to talk to people with a different view of the world. As it turns out, it was an interesting time to go because this year is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
The U.S. and Canada are good friends now, but there are lots of historical markers and artifacts across the border that reminded me that we weren’t always so. Many Canadians, including a retired judge in Brockville, Ontario, are conversant about the occasions when my ancestors tried to invade their northern neighbor.
More recently, I was reminded of another anniversary. It has been 300 years since Thomas Newcomen gave the first public demonstration of his atmospheric steam engine. I have spoken to engineers who consider that demonstration in 1712 to be the first shot in the Industrial Revolution. Watt came later and improved steam technology, yes, but Newcomen was the first guy to put heat to work—pumping water from mines.
It was a letter to the editor from an ASME member, Stan Jakuba, that brought this to my attention. Stan’s letter appears in the October issue of Mechanical Engineering.
Bob Woods, an ASME Fellow, wrote an article about Newcomen, his engine, and its legacy that ran in the December 2003 issue.
When I was a kid in school, history books would talk about “the Age of Steam,” a phrase that conveyed a sense that steam power was not unlike the War of 1812: off in the past.
After all, vehicles are powered by internal combustion engines—airplanes too, when they aren’t propelled by turbines. They stopped making steam locomotives early in the 1940s. Diesel moves the ships.
But even so, steam is very much with us in our electrified world. Steam carries heat through the pipes of my home, and I believe, of my office building. But most important, steam still keeps most of the lights on and the devices running.
Coal is the fuel that generates 40 percent or more of the electricity consumed in the United States each year. Nuclear reactors account for another 20 percent. In either case, reaction of the fuel heats water to produce steam. Combined cycle plants capture the hot exhaust of gas turbines to generate steam to produce more electricity.
And of course, I don’t think of steam without a nod to the thousands of people over the years who have developed the codes and standards that make the technology affordable and safe.
Electricity is one of the most important commodities supporting our civilization. And most of it comes from steam-driven technology.
Thank you, Newcomen.