How Your Hobby Started

Brief history of the mechanical engine


| March/April 1969


Man's imagination let to the often quoted saying, "Necessity is the Mother of Invention." In early days when men watched the unexplained phenomena of nature that dealt with forces of power, their imagination undoubtedly led to experiments applying energy to useful purposes. Historical records of such events has given us the story of the lives of many great pioneer inventors.

It would be as difficult for an engineer of today to solve problems if he had only the limited knowledge of the wheel, the lever, a vacuum, electricity and many other basic laws of physics and mechanics, as it was for the inventors of the fifteenth century to find solutions to visions they contemplated.

So it was in the time of the great artist, Leonardo da Vinci using his talent and imagination to draw sketches of a cylinder and the possibility of power being produced by a piston driven by some sort of propellant. Leonardo lived from 1452–1519, and aside from his great masterpieces in painting and sculpturing, he conceived ideas of many designs of machines using gears, link roller chains, ratchet and pullies. His drawings satisfied his imagination and he did not put these practical designs into use. During the next century there is little recorded of further achievements with engines, until 1629 when Giovanni Branca made a shovel wheel propelled by a blast of steam. Through a set of gears, he was able to run a stamp mill, a pump and a spit to turn meat.

Otto Von Guericke 1602–1686, made experiments of a vacuum through which the idea of the piston and valves were conceived. Then, during this same period a Dutchman by name of Christian Huygens propelled a piston using gun powder to actuate the driving force. The idea came from the principle of a cannon, however his endeavor to connect this force to a machine did not work.

About 1700 Frenchman Dionysius Papin used steam in a cylinder to force a piston forward and a vacuum to effect the return stroke. He was unable to construct a machine to make use of these forces. However, his efforts were another step toward practical designs. It was not until 1712 in England, during the early coal mining era, when mine pumps were being operated by horses (and the unit of work began to be known as horsepower) did Thomas Newcomer experiment with steam by improving on Papin's and Thomas Savery's ideas, produce an operative steam engine to replace for power on the mine pumps.

He came upon the arrangement or making steam in a boiler, then connecting it to the cylinder. The actual work of the engine was still preformed by the vacuum created by condensing steam. The vacuum and water cocks were operated by hand. By 1767, the collieries of Newcastle, England, had 1200 horsepower of this type engine pumping water.