The Steam Engine

If I were to ask you what the most important invention in human history was, what would you say? The computer, which kickstarted the digital revolution and launched us into the modern age? The lightbulb, which moved humanity out of the darkness and into the literal light? However, to find the invention that truly revolutionized humanity, one must go a few centuries back in time and consider the steam engine.

In 1698, an engineer named Thomas Savery invented the first steam engine, although it certainly was not used for the purposes we consider today. Instead, it was made to draw water out of flooded mines using steam compression. However, the slow heating-cooling process and wastage of steam made this and successive machines, notably the Newcomen engine, largely ineffective, but that changed with James Watt in 1765. Patenting a new, improved steam engine, James Watt was able to harness the power of steam into machines, which led inexorably into the Industrial Revolution.

Like the name suggests, the Industrial Revolution revolutionized industry. More specifically, it shifted the economy from agrarian to industrial, and people moved from working in the home to working for wages in the factories. These factories housed machines that were powered by the steam engine for every industry, from textiles to iron. Without the steam engine, these industries would have never gotten off of the ground.

However, the steam engine did more than impact industries – it revolutionized transportation. In steamboats, like those engineered by Robert Fulton, the steam engine allowed for the shipment of goods both downstream and upstream with ease, lowering costs and travel times. However, the most important impact of the steam engine to consider is the rise of the railroads. In Europe and America, railroads changed the way people lived, worked, and settled. The transcontinental railroad, for example, made moving to other parts of the country easier, since the transportation would cost less and there would be greater access to goods. Not only that, these railroads tied together the countries they were built in in a way that would have been impossible without the steam engine.

So the next time you use a computer or switch on a lightbulb, spare a thought for the oft-overlooked steam engine – it’s quite possible that none of these inventions would exist without it! 

– Mahak M.

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