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Natural Science - Year II

Unit 46: James Watt and Steam Power

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History Weblecture for Unit 46

This Unit's Homework Page History Lecture Science Lecture Lab Parents' Notes

History Lecture for Unit 46: Watt, Steam Engines, Energy, and Power

For Class

Energy and Heat

We are almost through with constructing the Newtonian, deterministic world view of the 19th century. There two pieces left: the definition of energy, the topic of this week's unit, and the discovery of the wave nature of light.

Concepts of Energy in the 17th Century

The study of energy in the 19th century is a study of heat and how heat can be used to do work. This wasn't an entirely new idea. In the first century A.D., Hero of Alexandria created a small steam "engine", but it was never used to do serious work. The question became important again, however, in the seventeenth century, when the mining engineers and factory owners of Europe were looking for a way to pump water out of mine shafts and power the newly-invented thread spinning machines.

The English ironmonger, Thomas Newcomen, created the first practical steam engine to pump water out of flooded tin mines. He built on the work of Thomas Savery, who had created a kind of thermic siphon, a way of using a partial vacuum created by injecting steam into a cylinder and then condensing it, as a pump. Newcomen used steam instead to drive a piston that could push air out, then suck water in.

Compare the Savery Engine and the Newcomen engine. Be sure to run the movie at the Savery Engine site to see how quickly this "inefficient" engine could empty water from a mine.
  • Trace the route of water from the intake area (flooded mine) through the system. What draws the water up out of the mine in each pump?
  • What do we mean by "engine efficiency"?
  • Why might the Newcomen engine be more efficient than the Savery engine?

A Scottish chemist, Joseph Black, made the distinction between the intensity of heat (measured by the temperature of a substance) and the quantity of heat necessary to produce a change in temperature. Black determined that different substances required specific amounts of heat for their temperatures to change one degree. He created a new unit, the calorie, and defined it as the amount of heat required to change the temperature of a cubic centimeter of water (a centiliter) by one degree centigrade. Once this unit had been defined, he could determine the specific heats of other substances in calories, effectively comparing them directly to the specific heat of water.

Black also discovered that when a substance is undergoing a phase change, its temperature doesn't change. This latent heat energy is used to effect the change, breaking bonds between molecules in a solid so that they are free to move in liquid form, and between liquid molecules so that the individual molecules can behave as gasses.

Basing his ideas on Black's work, Lavoisier envisioned heat as a fundamental element called caloric found in a liquid form (similar to phlogiston and the contemporary concept of electricity) that could flow from one object to another— and always from the hotter to the colder object. During the eighteenth century, this conceptualization proved inadequate to meet two needs: the new theoretical understanding of energy as some characteristic separate from the type of matter in which it occurs, and the practical application of energy to do work in machines as the industrial revolution began. The concept of efficiency, or work done as a result of energy input, becomes a key standard for determining the effectiveness of the new machines.

To pump water and power the machines of the textile industry, tool-makers turned to the medieval standby, falling water, but they soon realized that steam under pressure could not only push harder than falling water, but could be more easily directed and controlled. New methods of refining coal created fuel capable of generating higher temperatures. The higher temperatures also made it possible to refine iron and create new alloys steel (carbon and iron melted together). With the new alloys, industrialists could use iron for structures as well as decoration, and create steel able to withstand higher pressures and temperatures. Both characteristics were necessary to create machines such as the steam engine, capable of generating and harnessing greater amounts of heat energy.

James Watt worked on improving the efficiency of the steam engine. This was a problem of very great importance to the industrial revolution. The ability to increase work done by machines without increasing the expense of supplying the machines with fuel meant that more could be produced and sold at cheaper prices, making many products available to the general public for the first time in history. Before the engineers could make significant advances, however, they had to understand how heat, energy, and work were related.

Read Watt's biography, then read about the invention of the Steam Engine, both articles by Carl Lira. Follow the links to descriptions of a vacuum, the Savery Pump, and the various engines.
  • Where was Watt educated? Who influenced his thinking?
  • How did his partnership with Boulton help Watt invent a better steam engine?
  • What is a vacuum? Why is it important to the way a steam engine works?
  • What was the limitation of the Savery (vacuum) Pump?
  • What improvements did the Newcomen engine have over the Savery Pump?
  • What advantages did Watt's engine have?
  • What advantages did the double-acting engine have?

The work on temperature and energy culminated in the 19th century with the law of the conservation of energy and the laws of thermodynamics. These concepts still govern our understanding of how energy changes forms. Both rely on the idea that heat is a form of kinetic energy, the energy of motion. Molecules in solids, liquids, and gases vibrate in place or move and collide with each other. The more energy a sample of a substance has, the more its molecules vibrate or the faster they move. To study the sample as a whole, we need to use statistical methods that sum up the possible behaviors of individual particles to create a probable total behavior. So the laws of thermodynamics predict the total behavior of systems, not the behavior of any individual particle.

Study/Discussion Questions:

Further Study/On Your Own