Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

Story of the Steam-Engine

"Science moves, but slowly, slowly, creeping on from point to point."


T O imagine a world without trains on the land and steamers on the sea is, in these days, very difficult. And yet, through the times of Nelson and Napoleon, neither of these were available for transit. It was not till early in the nineteenth century, that the first steamer crossed the ocean, or the first train steamed along its iron rails with passengers.

All through the long ages of the past, men had been groping after the idea, that steam might be made to move heavy weights. But how? Point by point, step by step, they gradually discovered the great power of steam. Men, whose names were never written in the world's great history, struggled after nature's secret, each adding some atom of knowledge, to help those that came after.

Thus the express train, that to-day can cover fifty miles an hour, and the great ocean steamer, with its possible speed of twenty miles an hour, were not the invention of any one man or any one nation.

An ancient Greek at Alexandria, in the olden days, made the first steam-engine. It was only a toy, but it showed the power of steam to turn a ball suspended over a boiling caldron of water. But the years rolled on after this, and little was done till the art of printing, made known to the world, the discoveries of the men of old, and the increased industry of Europe, demanded some better means of transit for goods.

Throughout the seventeenth century, Italians, Dutch, French, and English worked at this magic power of steam. Through success and failure they laboured on. But the eighteenth century dawned to find, that they had not got further than erecting clumsy engines at the mouths of mines, to raise water.

It would take too long to tell of the accidents, that befell some of the new inventions. There was the poor Frenchman Papin, who, after a hard life and much valuable invention, made a steamship. It was merely a boat, into which he put a pumping-engine, which turned a water-wheel, which in its turn moved a paddle-wheel, and so moved the boat onwards down the river. But the boatmen on the river feared this new mode of steaming: they thought it would destroy their work; and one night they destroyed the poor little steamship, leaving its owner and inventor to flee for his life.


James Watt and the Steam-engine

There was the man who made an engine on four iron legs, to move like a horse; but it didn't move like a horse at all. There was the steam-engine, from which great things were expected, that suddenly burst, and it was a wonder that any of the bystanders escaped with their lives.

A great impetus was given to inventors, by the discovery of a young Scotsman—James Watt—towards the middle of the eighteenth century. He had always been greatly attracted by the power of steam, and as a little lad, had made models of useless little steam-engines. One Sunday afternoon, he was walking by himself in a grassy meadow near Glasgow, thinking as usual about his engine, when a new idea came into his head with regard to steam. He set to work to make an engine on this new principle, and all men acknowledged, that a great stride had been made in the world of discovery. Watt's engine worked with great power, and used less coal than any before, but it made a terrible noise, and was very far from perfection.

Meanwhile an American, named Fulton, was working at steamships. Watt's engine supplied a want. He ordered one to be fitted into his ship, and launched the "Clermont" on the river at New York in the year 1807. The boat did 150 miles in thirty-two hours—the first voyage of any considerable length made by a steamer. But she terrified those who saw her. Dry pine-wood was used for fuel, and the flames rose high into the air, while the noise of the machinery and paddles so frightened the boatmen on the river that they threw themselves on their knees to pray for protection from the horrible monster, which was moving on the waters, "breathing flames and smoke, defying wind and tide."

Great Britain and America were now shooting ahead of the other nations with their inventions. It was reserved for an Englishman, to put the first engine on a railroad. In the year 1808, Trevithick built a railroad in London, and set at work a steam-carriage, which he called "Catch-me-who-can." It made a journey of about twelve miles an hour on a circular railway, but one day it was thrown off the track by the breaking of a rail, and never started again.

Still the idea was sound, and a few years later George Stephenson made his first successful engine in the north of England. He called it the "Blücher," after the great Prussian general, who had fought against Napoleon, and was going to fight again in the course of the next year. The Blücher was clumsy and noisy enough, but it succeeded in drawing after it eight loaded carriages of coal, at the rate of four miles an hour, and worked regularly for some time.

It was yet some years later, before passengers were willing to trust themselves behind such engines or on board such steamers, as have been described. The flames, the smoke, the jerky movements, the rattling of machinery, were enough to frighten the most courageous. But the new discoveries were enough to put a new face on the commerce and industries of Great Britain. The iron- and coal-fields of the north were worked with redoubled vigour; lines were laid from the mines to the towns and the coast, and the steam-engine proved to be the most wonderful instrument that human industry ever had at its command. Great Britain had finally achieved, what the whole world had sought for thousands of years, and by this achievement, she rose to be the greatest manufacturing country the world has yet seen.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Fall of the Empire  |  Next: The Congress of Vienna
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.