January 1, 1698 - The Steam Engine

The Impact of the Steam Engine on Economy and Social Structure

The steam engine revolutionized the commoner’s lifestyle in the 18th and 19th centuries,
yet its impact reigns over our lives today. Although the steam engine is simple to understand
with a rather basic design, inventors took many years to perfect and utilize the machine in labor
practices. The steam engine’s history begins in ancient Greece with Heron of Alexandria, not in
the industrial revolution like many believe. Heron of Alexandria was like Willy Wonka. He
designed everything from the first vending machine to the syringe. Not everything was as fun as
the everlasting gobstopper, nor did the vending machine emit candy. It was used to regulate the
volume of holy water ancient Greeks were taking from places of worship. The first steam engine
was very different from the steam engine that we know today. It consisted of an orb that was
suspended by two pipes on either side (also known as the aeolipile). The base was a bowl-shaped
vessel, covered on top, and filled with water. Below this would be a fire making the water boil,
causing steam to travel upwards through the pipes and into the orb. Once the steam has filled the
orb to a point where it maximizes the orb’s capacity, it would exit through the two L-shaped
pipes attached to opposite sides of the orb. The end of the L’s would point in opposite directions,
causing the orb to spin when steam, under enough pressure, exits. The attached video shows how
the machine works, and the picture illustrates the contraption.


The idea of the steam engine was not employed again until the industrial revolution.
Thomas Savery revitalized this invention in 1698 in England. Like Heron of Alexandria, Savery
explored the components of a steam engine but did not utilize it to assist with labor or
transportation. Later in 1712, another steam engine enthusiast named Thomas Newcomen took
the principles introduced by Savery and applied it to mine-work. Newcomen, being a miner
himself, experienced firsthand the difficulties of being a miner; one of these difficulties was the
collection of water in mining sites. The collection of water in mining sites hindered the
efficiency of miners. In response to this, Newcomen used a steam engine to remove the
accumulation of water.

The improvement of the steam engine was far from over after Newcomen. James Watt
made changes to the steam engine, making it dependent on a lesser amount of coal. It utilized a
greater amount of energy that the steam produced. Unlike Newcomen’s previous alternative, the
cylinder or chamber did not cool. A valve allowed the steam to escape into a condenser where
the steam was able to revert to water; this allowed the engine to conserve and utilize thermal
energy. Steam engines recycled water, meaning they were more versatile. Bringing us back to
where we started, Watt used a syringe in a model steam engine to mimic its function. Heron of
Alexandria, alongside many of his other inventions, invented the syringe. After Watt
demonstrated success through his model, the design spread far and wide, quick. It was not until
after the 1700’s that the use of the steam engine was present in transportation and labor, which
consequently sparked the industrial revolution. Although the mass utilization of the steam engine
extended into the 1800s, it’s birth and fortification occurred alongside monumental strides in
both political structure and science.

The steam engine not only sparked the industrial revolution but also sparked everything from a
boosted, strong, economy to employing children (Post 1700’s):

Perhaps the most vital idea behind the invention of the steam engine is its effect on our
lives. The use of steam engines is not as prevalent as it used to be as we harvest power from
natural forces or natural gasses, to name a few. The steam engine is the distant relative to every
electrically powered object. The simplicity of using steam to power machines has grown into
infinitely complex methods that continue to make our world today seem more futuristic than real.

The invention
of the steam
engine made
construction of
products take
less time and
less complex.
The new, fast,
and simple
production of
items lead to
more available
jobs and lower
prices; this
leaves families
with spare
People could now buy and
sell more things making
the economy flourish and
business boom, but if these
people had spare money,
what kept them working?
Well, the philosophy of
child labor was introduced.
With the demand of goods
continuously growing, steam
engines were employed on a
large scale. These engines
did not run on oxygen; they
ran on the burning of coal,
which pollutes the air with
toxic emissions. These
emissions can be considered
as the beginning of a global
crisis we know as global





By Grace Knipe