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Newcomen, Thomas

1. Dates
Born: Dartmouth, Devon, Feb. 1664 He was christened 24 Feb. The date universally given earlier, 1663, was a misreading of the old style; it was 1663/4.
Died: London, 5 Aug. 1729
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 65
2. Father
Occupation: Merchant
Elias Newcomen was a merchant. The family derived from an old aristocratic family in Lincolnshire that lost its property in the reign of Henry VIII.
No clear information on financial status. Note, however, that Elias Newcomen was no mere local retailer. The fact that Thomas received no higher education relates to their being Baptists, not to their financial status.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: No University
The extent of his education is wholly unclear; the family were Baptists and thus outside the standard channels.
No university education.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Sect
Newcomen's grandfather and father were nonconformists. He himself was a leader of the Baptists of his locality, who frequently preached in their congregations.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Engineering
Newcomen was the inventor of the early, pre-Watt, steam engine. He erected the first successful one in 1712.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Art, Engineering
Ironmonger (more a blacksmith than a merchant) in partnership with John Calley, 1685-1729.
In partnership with Savery, from perhaps 1705 until Savery's death in 1715, erecting steam engines. He continued in this activity until his death.
8. Patronage
Type: None
His case is perhaps worthy of note. Connections were of immense importance to his career, but the connections were to the Baptist community of England. As far as patronage was concerned, Newcomen travelled in utterly different channels; I saw nothing whatever that reminded me of patronage.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Mechanical Devices
The steam engine. It seems clear that Newcomen's engine did not derive from any knowledge of contemporary scientific theories, but from familiarity with technical operations and practical needs, and from trial and error. His basic improvement, the injection of cold water to condense the steam directly into the cylinder, was the result of chance.
Desagulier states that he and Newcomen together invented a device to allow air to escape from water pipes.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Informal Connections: Association with John Calley beginning in 1685. Association with Marten Triewald, a Swedish engineer, 1716-26. Association with Savery .
Sources
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 14, 326-9. L.T.C. Rolt, Thomas Newcomen: The Prehistory of the Steam Engine, (London, 1963).
  2. H.W. Dickinson, A Short History of the Steam Engine, (London, 1963). David Richards, "Thomas Newcomen and the Environment of Innovation," Industrial Archaeology, 13 (1978), 335-46.
  3. John S. Allen, "Thomas Newcomen (1663/4-1729) and his Family," Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 51 (1979-80), 11-24.
  4. "Thomas Newcomen: A Commemorative Symposium on the 250th Anniversary of his Death," Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 50 (1978-9), 163-218.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Rhys Jenkins, "The Heat Engine Idea in the Seventeenth Century," Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 17 (1936-7), 1-11.
  2. _____, "Savery, Newcomen and the Early History of the Steam Engine," Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 3 (1922-3), 96-118, and 4 (1923-4), 113-34.
  3. Muriel Hine, "The Pedigree of Thomas Newcomen, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 9 (1928-9), 105-8.
  4. There is a rapidly expanding literature on Newcomen. At the end of the "Commemorative Symposium" (Transactions, 50) there is a long list of articles that have appeared in the Transactions of the Newcomen Society.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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1995 Al Van Helden
Last updated
 
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