IT is recorded, 130 years before the Christian era, that the elder Hero of Alexandria is the first author who gives an account of the application of the vapor of boiling water as a power. Hero expressly ascribes the sounds produced by the statue of Memnon to steam generated in the pedestal and issuing from its mouth. Champollion, who is the highest authority on this point, declares that the Memnon of the Greeks is identical with Prince Amenophis II., one of the Egyptians who reigned at Thebes, 1,600 years before Christ. Therefore, if Hero's surmises of the Statue of Memnon are correct, we have an application of steam before the date of the exodus of the Israelites. Hero himself constructed a toy, one that would raise water like a fountain, keep a ball in equilibrium, and another giving a rotary motion to a ball; but he does not give the slightest hint that his invention or discovery could be made capable of any useful application, nor did he imagine that he possessed a knowledge of a power that was in future ages to produce such important results.

A knowledge of some of the properties of steam seems to have been understood during the flourishing periods and even to the decline of the Roman empire. In the reign of Justinian, the architect Artemius, of that empire, gave some experiments to demonstrate the power of steam or vapor of boiling water. He arranged several vessels containing water, each covered with the wide bottom of a tube, which rose to a narrower top, with pipes extending to the rafters of an adjoining house. When fire was kindled beneath the vessels, the rafters were raised from their positions, and the house shaken by the force of the steam ascending the tubes.

Cardan is the earliest modern author in whom we detect any hint of a knowledge of the mechanical power of steam. He gives a description of the eolipile, in a work dated 1071. The instrument showed how a current of air was made to follow the course of the steam that issued from the neck of the eolipile. Modern writers speak of various others who seemed to have ideas of the mechanical power of steam. The most worthy of notice are Baptista Porta, a Neapolitan, Brancas, a Frenchman, and De Coss. Brancas proposed to direct the current of air issuing from an eolipile upon the leaves of a wheel which, being set in motion, might serve to move machinery. This method was imperfect and wasteful, yet its attempt is deserving of praise, inasmuch as he is the first person who entertained a hope of realizing the vast benefits that steam has since conferred upon the world.

One Marion de Lorme, in a letter to the Marquis de Mars, in 1641, describes his visit to the madhouse, called the Bicetre, at Paris, in which he saw, confined in a cell, a poor creature named Solomon de Cause, who seemed to be one of the first to conceive the idea, in 1615, of employing the steam or vapor of boiling water as a power by which both carriages on land and ships at sea could be propelled. Accompanying De Lorme in this visit to the mad-house, was the Marquis of Worcester. After relating many curious cases of madness, De Lorme writes that they saw a man named Solomon de Cause, looking through the bars of his cell. On seeing that he was noticed, Solomon exclaimed in a hoarse and melancholy voice: "I am not mad ! I am not mad! But I have made a discovery that would enrich the country which would adopt it; but I am not mad ! I am not mad!" "What has he discovered?" asked De Lorme of the guide. "Oh," replied the keeper, "something trifling enough, of course. The poor creature says that he has discovered a wonderful power in the use of steam from boiling water. He came from Normandy, about four years ago, to present to the king a statement of the wonderful effects that might be produced from his invention. The cardinal sent him away without listening to him. Solomon persisted, and followed the cardinal wherever he went, and finally so annoyed him with his discovery, that he had him shut up in the Bicetre, as a madman."

Of all those who attempted to apply steam to useful purposes, the Marquis of Worcester fills the greatest space. His ideas of steam, and its applications, are to be found in a work called the "Century of Inventions," originally published in London, in 1663. The marquis, it is said, employed a mechanic thirty-five years to make models of machines for the power of steam. Many of these ideas appeared at the time absolutely impossible, yet they have been realized by modern inventors. In all his projects, the expansive power of steam alone was used.

That the steam-engine was not a mere theory in the conception of Worcester, but was actually put into operation, a recent discovery has settled upon positive testimony. The Grand-duke of Tuscany, Cosmo de Medicis, traveled in England in 1656. The manuscript of his travels remained unpublished until 1818. The following is an extract: "His highness," that he might not lose the day uselessly, "went again, after dinner, to the other side of the city, as far as Vauxhall, to see a machine, invented by my Lord Somerset, Marquis of Worcester. It raises water more than forty geometrical feet, by the power of one man only." Here, then, is a description of an engine in actual operation.

In all these projects the expansive power of steam was alone used; the steam was made to act directly upon the surface of the water; in this way the use of high steam is essential to success, and upon a large scale was attended with danger in the low state of the mechanic arts in those days, and various contrivances and improvements were introduced as in modern times. Consequently their necessity became visible, and as early as in 1680 the safety-valve, which has since been of such importance in the construction of steam-engines, was invented by Denys Pepin, a French Protestant. It was made in the following manner: A conical aperture was made in the lid or top of the boiler, and to this was fitted a conical stopper, pressed into the aperture by a weight suspended at the end of a lever. It was identical with the most usual form of safety-valves at the present day.

It has often been written that the power of steam was first discovered by the Marquis of Worcester, from observing the motion of the lid of a tea-kettle of boiling water. It may be so, but we are more inclined to believe that the marquis got his first idea of the power of steam at the time of his visit to the Bicetre with Marion de Lorme, when he saw poor Solomon, and heard from his keeper the cause of his malady; then experimented and improved upon the hint. It does seem far more likely that this poor madman, as he was considered, and who it must appear had neither means nor friends to get him released from this thralldom, would be the one to observe the effects of the steam upon the lid of a tea-kettle than a proud English marquis. This, however we will leave for some one else to determine, and resume our subject, although we cannot doubt our readers will excuse this digression.

The motion of a piston in a cylinder suggested itself to Pepin, first of all, as a method of adapting the expansive power of steam to produce mechanical effects.

The history of steam, applied to purposes of acknowledged utility, commences with one Savary, a Cornish miner, who in 1718 proposed the use of it to free the mines from water; for as early as 1710 Newcomen and Hawley had completed the first steam engine in England, a patent for which had been issued in 1700.

Pepin constructed an engine for the Elector of Hesse in 1707. Savary's engine was confined to a single object, that of raising the water from the mines; and even this was done at a great disadvantage, from the imperfection of the principle, and the makeup of the machine; yet it was important as a step to the construction of more perfect machines, and even it was itself of some value when compared with the methods of freeing the mines from water which were at that period in use.

In 1769, over a century ago, the subject of steam was first introduced to the mind of James Watt, and his first engine was made soon after, or in 1769. He was assisted by Dr. Robinson.

At a very early period the same Savary, before mentioned, proposed steam as a means of propelling carriages, but made no practical experiments.

The same James Watt in 1784 describes an engine for propelling carriages on common roads, but, being too much occupied in perfecting his condensing engine, nothing further was done by him toward constructing this locomotive.

Steam-engines, imperfect as they were at that early period, appear to have been directed first to the propelling of boats upon the water rather than carriages upon the land.

Table of Contents | Antebellum Page | Site Contents

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery