Thomas Newcomen | Biography | Steam Engine | Scientific Work | Legacy & Facts

Thomas Newcomen (February 28, 1663 – August 5, 1729) was an English inventor who destined to leave an indelible mark on the world of engineering. Trained as a blacksmith in Exeter, his innate curiosity and innovative spirit led him to create the prototype of the first modern steam engine in 1712. This groundbreaking machine, known as the “Atmospheric Steam Engine” revolutionized industrial technology.

Before Newcomen’s pivotal invention, the realm of steam power was still nascent. Early pioneers like Edward Somerset, Thomas Savery, and John Desaguliers had initiated research into this domain. Their foundational work set the stage for Newcomen and subsequently, innovators like James Watt, to refine and advance the technology.

Early Life

Thomas Newcomen was born on February 28, 1663, into a middle-class family. His father, Elias Newcomen, was a ship-owner and merchant, while his mother was named Sarah. Thomas mother passed away when he was very young and Elias later married Alice Trenhale in 1668. Alice played a significant role in raising Thomas and his siblings.

In his early years, Thomas likely apprenticed as an ironmonger in Exeter. By 1685, he was trading as a blacksmith in Dartmouth, and records indicate his dealings in iron purchases between 1694 and 1700. He also repaired the Dartmouth Town Clock in 1704 and ran a retail store selling tools and other items.

On 13th of July, 1705, he married Hannah Waymouth, the daughter of Peter Waymouth of Marlborough. With whom he had three children: Hannah, Thomas and Elias. Despite having limited formal education, Thomas developed an interest in mining machinery, particularly focusing on the challenges of draining flooded mines. This interest would later pave the way for his significant contributions to the field.

Religious Life

Thomas Newcomen, best known for his revolutionary steam engine, was also deeply rooted in his religious beliefs and played a pivotal role in the Baptist community of his time. His spiritual journey began at home, influenced by his father who was instrumental in bringing the revered Puritan minister, John Flavel, to Dartmouth. This early exposure to religious teachings paved the way for Newcomen’s own commitment to the Baptist church. He took on the mantle of a lay preacher, dedicating himself to the teachings of the church and guiding the local community with his sermons.

Newcomen’s dedication to his faith was recognized by his peers, leading to his appointment as the pastor of a local Baptist congregation. After 1710, he was appointed as the pastor of a local Baptist congregation. His influence wasn’t just limited to Dartmouth; he had significant contacts in the broader Baptist community. One of his notable associations was with Edward Wallin, a Baptist minister from London. Through Wallin, Newcomen became acquainted with the esteemed Doctor John Gill of Horsleydown, Southwark, further solidifying his place within the Baptist clergy.

His association with the Baptist church at Bromsgrove proved to be fortuitous for his invention, the steam engine. It was within this church community that he connected with engineers Jonathan Hornblower Sr. and his son. Their shared faith and mutual interests in engineering accelerated the spread and adoption of Newcomen’s pioneering invention.

In reflection, while Thomas Newcomen’s name is often synonymous with the steam engine, it’s essential to recognize his profound impact on the Baptist community. His life serves as a testament to the harmony of faith and innovation, proving that one can excel in both spiritual and worldly pursuits.


In the course of his entrepreneurial activities, Thomas Newcomen established significant relationships with the owners of the tin mines in Cornwall. These owners were continually confronted with the challenge of extracting water from their mines which were becoming deeper over time, in order to maintain them in a dry and functional state.

Thomas Newcomen Biography Steam Engine Scientific Work Legacy & FactsThe conventional solutions of the time, which involved the use of horses and buckets or hand-operated pumps, were not only heavy on labor but also inefficient and costly.

In the late 17th century, specifically in 1699, an individual named Thomas Savery obtained a patent for an innovative pump that harnessed the power of a vacuum to move water upwards.

Newcomen, sharing a similar interest in pumping technology, poured his energies into the development of a more efficient pump. Collaborating with a plumber by the name of John Calley, they dedicated themselves to devising a steam pump that proved significantly more effective than the earlier, crude pump created by Thomas Savery.

Their inventive design involved generating a vacuum within a cylinder by introducing steam from a boiler and then causing it to condense swiftly with an injection of cold water. Subsequently, a lever was employed to transmit the force to the pump shaft which went down into the mine, thereby facilitating the removal of water.

Contemporary engines worked by using condensed steam to make a vacuum, but whereas Thomas Savery’s pump of 1698 had just used the vacuum to pull the water up, Newcomen created his vacuum inside a cylinder and used it to pull down a piston. He then used a lever to transfer the force to the pump shaft that went down the mine. It was the first practical engine to use a piston in a cylinder.

                                              — British Broadcasting Company

Due to the pre-existing patent held by Savery, Newcomen was compelled to collaborate with him in order to bring his steam pump to fruition. The inauguration of the first functional Newcomen engine occurred in 1712 near Dudley Castle, Staffordshire, at the site known as Coneygree Coal Works. This engine featured a brass cylinder measuring 21 inches in diameter and 7 feet 10 inches in height. It operated at the rate of twelve strokes per minute, with each stroke capable of lifting 10 gallons (around 45 liters) of water to a height of 51 yards (nearly 46 meters).

The engine was powered by a boiler, a copper cylindrical vessel capped with a lead dome, which held approximately 660 gallons (3,000 liters) of water. This impressive machine could run uninterrupted, day and night, with an energy output of about 4KW. It proved to be an invaluable asset for mine drainage and for elevating water to drive waterwheels, despite its early iteration being quite inefficient and a voracious consumer of coal for steam generation.

By the time 1733 arrived, marking the expiration of the patent, the Newcomen engine had seen over 100 units in active service, not just within the UK but internationally, marking a significant advancement in the realm of steam-powered engines.

Thomas Newcomen Partnership with Savery

Thomas Newcomen’s partnership with Thomas Savery was born out of necessity and innovation, a strategic alliance in the dawning age of steam technology. While Newcomen was locally considered an unconventional thinker, his familiarity with Savery’s steam engine concepts brought the two men together in a collaboration that would change the course of industrial history.

Newcomen, a skilled blacksmith and ironmonger by trade, was drawn to the potential of Savery’s engine and sought to improve upon the design. With Savery residing in Modbury, close to Newcomen’s own home, a partnership was both convenient and beneficial. Savery, holding the exclusive rights to the patent on surface condensation—a key feature in steam engine design—hired Newcomen to forge a working model of his engine.

Recognizing Newcomen’s expertise and perhaps seeing the opportunity for advancement of his own work, Savery allowed Newcomen to create a copy of the engine for his use. Their efforts eventually led to the patent of 1708, which included Newcomen and Calley’s significant improvements: a steam cylinder and piston, surface condensation, a separate boiler, and separate pumps. These modifications marked a considerable advance from Savery’s original design.

Despite Savery being named on the patent due to his prior claims, it was the synergistic work between Savery and Newcomen that facilitated the creation of the Newcomen engine. The first full-scale operational engine, completed in 1712, was installed in a Staffordshire coal mine, representing the culmination of their partnership. Although the engine operated with limited efficiency, it was a milestone in steam engine development.

Newcomen’s partnership with Savery was, in essence, a product of the era’s intellectual property laws and a shared vision to harness the power of steam. Their joint efforts laid the groundwork for what would become a critical tool in the early Industrial Revolution, setting the stage for future developments in steam power.

Thomas Newcomen Partnership with John Calley

Thomas Newcomen, a notable figure in the early history of steam power, embarked on his journey into steam research with the assistance of John Calley (1663–1717), a fellow Devonshire native from Brixton. The partnership between Newcomen and Calley, who was either a glazier or a plumber by trade, proved pivotal in the development of the atmospheric steam engine, a venture that saw both their names on the patent for the Atmospheric Steam Engine. Calley served out an apprenticeship in Newcomen’s workshops and continued to work thereafter.

Their collaboration on steam engine technology likely began in the late 17th century. By 1707, Newcomen had expanded his business interests, securing new leases on several properties in Dartmouth. This period marked significant advancements in their steam engine research. Despite lacking formal education in mechanical engineering, Newcomen and Calley sought the counsel of the esteemed scientist Robert Hooke. They inquired about their design, which featured a steam cylinder and piston similar to that of Denis Papin’s invention. Hooke, however, advised against their plans.

In 1698, their determination led to the creation of an experimental steam engine with approximately 7-inch-diameter brass cylinder. This early model, sealed with a leather flap around the piston’s edge, was a rudimentary yet significant step towards the development of effective steam engines. The primary goal of these early engines, including Newcomen’s, was to efficiently drain water from coal mines, addressing a crucial need of the time.

Thomas Newcomen and James Watt

Thomas Newcomen and James Watt (1736-1819) are two pivotal figures in the history of steam engine development, each contributing significantly to the evolution of this technology during the 18th century. The Newcomen Engine, while not notably efficient, was as complex as the engineering and material capabilities of the early 18th century allowed. A significant amount of heat was lost in condensing steam, which also cooled the cylinder. This was less of an issue at collieries with access to abundant, low-grade coal (slack), but it raised the mining costs in areas where coal was scarce.

After 1775, in regions where coal was costly, Newcomen’s engine began to be replaced by James Watt’s improved design, featuring a separate condenser for steam. Despite these advancements by Watt, the original Newcomen Engines, also known as Common Engines, continued to be widely used due to their lower cost and simpler design. During the era of Watt’s patent, more Newcomen engines were constructed than Watt engine, with over 2,200 engines built in the 18th century, of which only about 450 were Watt’s designed engines.

Thomas Newcomen Atmospheric Engine

The opening chapter in the narrative of the Industrial Revolution centers on the steam engine. While James Watt often comes to mind at the mention of “steam engine,” it was Thomas Newcomen who, in 1712, crafted the very first one. This early version of the steam engine differed significantly from the modern conception of an engine as a device for rotating a shaft or crank. Rather, Newcomen’s invention functioned as a pump, primarily designed to remove water from mines.

Initially, Newcomen’s atmospheric engine relied on a gradual cooling method, where water was sprayed on the cylinder’s surface to create a vacuum. This vacuum was essential for the engine’s operation, but the process was so slow that the engine only completed 6 to 8 strokes per minute. Through subsequent enhancements, this rate significantly increased to 10 to 12 strokes per minute.

The engine operated by introducing steam into the cylinder through a valve, balancing the air pressure inside. This balance allowed the weighty pump rod to drop, pulling the piston back up via a lever mechanism. If necessary, a counterweight was attached to the rod. Upon opening another valve, water sprayed into the cylinder, condensing the steam and creating a vacuum. Atmospheric pressure then pushed the piston down, lifting the pump rods and enabling continuous operation.

A significant innovation by Newcomen was the addition of a pipe to maintain a water seal above the piston, preventing air from leaking in. The engine also featured two gauge-cocks and a safety valve to manage pressure, which was not much higher than atmospheric levels. The water used for cooling and the resulting condensate were expelled through an open pipe.

Newcomen further adapted his design to aid mining operations by evacuating water from mines. He incorporated an overhead beam to link the piston and pump rod, enhancing the engine’s efficiency in powering mine pumps.


Thomas Newcomen passed away on the 5th of August, 1729, at his friend residence in London. His final resting place was in Bunhill Fields, a cemetery located on the fringes of the City of London; however, the precise location of his grave remains a mystery.

His spouse, Hannah, outlived him and later relocated to Marlborough, where she passed away in 1756. His offspring, Thomas, pursued a career in the cloth-making industry as a serge maker in Taunton, while Elias Newcomen ventured into the ironmongery business.


Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine indeed faced initial skepticism and comparison to earlier ideas. The concept of using steam to create mechanical motion had been explored before, with Christian Huyghens’ piston engine design being one such example. Huyghens had proposed a piston engine powered by gunpowder gases, though it was never built. Newcomen’s innovation was to substitute steam for the gases generated by gunpowder, effectively harnessing steam power for practical applications.

One reason for Newcomen’s work not being immediately recognized could have been societal biases. As a middle-class blacksmith, Newcomen didn’t fit the typical profile of elite inventors of the time. The prevailing belief among the educated and elite class may have been that someone of Newcomen’s background wouldn’t possess the capacity to invent something groundbreaking.

However, over time, Newcomen’s contributions were acknowledged and appreciated. His collaboration with John Calley led to significant improvements in the condensation method used in the Savery engine, laying the foundation for the widespread adoption of steam power.

John Theophilus Desaguliers, a prominent French inventor and philosopher, noted the extensive use of Newcomen’s steam engine in various applications, particularly in mining districts like Cornwall. The engine’s versatility allowed it to be employed in tasks ranging from draining wetlands to supplying water to towns and even propelling ships.

Furthermore, Newcomen’s technology served as a precursor to more advanced developments, including the invention of the steam-powered locomotive in the early 19th century. Innovations built upon Newcomen’s principles played a crucial role in shaping the Industrial Revolution and transforming transportation, industry, and society as a whole.

Fast Facts: Thomas Newcomen

  • Birth and Early Life: Thomas Newcomen was born on February 28, 1663, in Dartmouth, England. He was the son of Elias Newcomen and his first wife, Sarah.
  • Occupation: Trained in Exeter, Newcomen was an ironmonger, which is akin to a blacksmith.
  • Marital Status: He married Hannah Waymouth on July 13, 1705.
  • Children: The couple had three children named Thomas, Elias, and Hannah.
  • Major Invention: In 1712, Newcomen assembled the prototype for the first modern steam engine, which became known as the “Atmospheric Steam Engine.”
  • Influences: Before Newcomen’s invention, steam engine technology was being explored by individuals like Edward Somerset of Worcester, Thomas Savery (Newcomen’s neighbor), and French philosopher John Desaguliers.
  • Legacy: Newcomen’s atmospheric steam engine laid the foundation for future inventors such as James Watt to further develop and refine steam-powered machines.
  • Demise: Thomas Newcomen passed away in London on August 5, 1729.
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