BLACKSMITH THOMAS Newcomen and his assistant John Caley, a plumber, were working on a steam pump to extract water from copper and tin mines in the South-West. Whether or not they knew it, the Devonshire duo combined Savery’s pump with Papin’s piston to produce an atmospheric engine – the world’s first practicable steam engine. It was far more powerful than any of its predecessors, thanks to a lucky accident. A steam-filled cylinder split;  cold water that ran down the outside of the cylinder to cool the steam and create a vacuum got into the cylinder. As a result the pressure dropped so fast that  the chain connecting the piston to the pumping beam it snapped. The idea stuck…

Thomas Newcomen (blacksmith) and John Calley (plumber) made what they called a fire engine and we call a steam engine.


PAPIN COLLABORATED on another steam engine, based on Savery’s design but using steam pressure rather than atmospheric pressure. However this major advance stalled. In 1877 in the Scientific American Prof Charles Joy reported on a trip to Germany where he had seen papers confirming that in 1707 Papin asked Leibnitz to help him win the consent of the Hanoverian Government to navigate the river Weser with a sidewheel steamboat. The letter, dated 7 July 1707, included the claim that “the new invention will enable one or two men to accomplish more effect than several hundred oarsmen.” Joy wrote: “A mob of boatmen, who thought they saw in the embryo ship the ruin of their business, attacked the vessel at night and utterly destroyed it. Papin narrowly escaped with his life, and fled to England, where he endured great hardships and poverty, and all traces of him were soon lost, so that it is uncertain in what country he finally died or where he was buried.” The professor added: “If Papin had been permitted to navigate the Weser with his ship, and to carry it to London, as was his intention, it is possible that we should have had steamboats 100 years earlier than they were given to us by Fulton. After the lapse of 100 years from the date of Papin’s invention, when the first steamboat was put upon the river Rhine, the vessel was fired into by concealed marksmen on shore, and navigation was more dangerous than it is now on the upper waters of the Missouri in times of Indian hostility.”


ABRAHAM DARBY began smelting iron using coke. Charcoal, which had been used to produce iron since Roman times, was in short supply; coal had been tried but its sulphur content made the iron brittle. Darby bought a derelict ironworks in Coalbrookdale to put his theories to the test – his success ensured iron would be plentiful and cheap, just when British industry needed it.

From 1709 Abraham Darby used this charcoal-fired furnace in Coalbrookdale to cast a range of iron goods.


MINDFUL OF the patent held by Thomas Savery covering “all imagined” uses of steam power, Thomas Newcomen teamed up with him to install the world’s first commercial steam engine. It was used to extract water from a coalmine near Dudley, West Midlands so fuel was no problem. The menage a trois of coal, steam and iron would open the floodgates to the industrial revolution which would give Great Britain its time as a Great Power. What started in Dudley would transform that part on England’s green and pleasant land into the smokey powerhouse that became known as the Black Country.


HUMPHREY POTTER, a lad paid to manually operate the valves of a Newcomen engine, rigged up a system of cords to automatically open and close the operating valves. This brought high-speed engines a step closer. Young Potter also made himself redundant, but as his job title was cock-boy this was doubtless a merciful release.

A FRENCHMAN named DuQuet designed two carriages incorporating small windmills. One powered its wheels via ratchet bars and pinions; the other had two pairs of legs to push it along.


HENRY BEIGHTON designed a more reliable version of Potter’s operating system and installed a Newcomen engine incoporporating his improvements at at Oxclose Colliery, near Washington, County Durham.

Henry Beighton tidied up the automatic valve system that led to high-speed engines – and made this rather fine engraving of the engine Newcomen installed in Griff, near Nuneaton, Warks.

DESAGULIERS INTRODUCED an improved version of the Savery engine complete with safety valves.


GERMAN PHYSISIST Jacob Leupold started to work on the manuscript of Theatri Machinarum, the first systematic analysis of mechanical engineering. It included, decades ahead of its time, a design for a high-pressure non-condensing steam engine in which two cylinders alternately received steam and  vented to the atmosphere. He attributed the concept to Papin.

Jacob Leupold’s book on mechanical engineering helped spread the knowledge that would in time change the world.


DR STEPHEN HALES Hales published his Vegetable Statics, in which he described experiments for the production of “elastic fluids from a great number of substances”. He wrote: “From the distillation of 158 grains of Newcastle coal I gained 180 cubic inches of air which weighed 51 grains…” A mysterious phenomenon had become a scientific process and the gas that lit British homes would fuel British internal combustion engines. Oddly enough the good doctor seemed to have taken little interest in the inflammability of coal gas.


NEWCOMEN’S patent expired, by which time about 100 of his engines had been built.


RUBBER BOUNCED into Europe, courtesy of French astronomer Charles Marie de la Condamine who came across locals wearing waterproof shoes while in Peru to measure an arc of the meridian. Fitting was no problem; they simply stood in pools of liquid rubber and left it to set. As well as being of great use when building motor cycles rubber also makes jolly amusing novelty dog chews.

A bike needs rubber and so, sometimes, does a Labrador.

JONATHAN HULLS patented a paddle steamer for use as a tug, powered by a Newcomen engine which would use a ratchet action to produce a rotary motion.

Hulls was way ahead of his time with plans for a steam tug.


WILLIAM CHAMPION produced metallic zinc from calamine ore, clever chap. He heated the ore in a sealed container, allowing him to capture the zinc. vapour and condense it. This process also suited to large-scale production of brass; Champion’s Zinc and Brass Works duly became one of the biggest industrial centres in Europe.


THE ROYAL SOCIETY’S Philosophical Transactions contain An Extract from a Letter by the Rev Dr John Clayton in which he describes “the spirit of coal”: a gas that could readily be distilled, stored and ignited at will. He reported: “I got some coal, and distilled it in a retort over an open fire. At first there came only phlegm, afterwards a black oil, and then, likewise a spirit arose…which issued out caught fire at the flame of the candle…I kept this spirit in bladders a considerable time; and when I had a mind to divert strangers or friends, I have frequently taken one of these bladders and pricked a hole therein with a pin, and compressing gently the bladder near the flame of a candle till it once took fire.”


HOROLOGIST BENJAMIN Huntsman developed the crucible steel technique and opened a manufactory in Sheffield to make a remarkably pure steel for clock and watch springs. Local cutlers reckoned his steel was too hard for their needs until they found their Continental competitors were using it to excellent effect. Huntsman’s process facilitated steel manufacture on an industrial scale – no wonder they named a pub after him.

Ben Hunstsman’s Crucible steel manufacturing equipment looked pretty basic, but it allowed steel to be made on an industrial scale.


JOHN HARRISON, also a horologist and maybe the finest of them all, invented a practicable caged-roller bearing (and the bi-metallic strip) during his lifelong pursuit of the £20,000 Longitude Prize. This was launched after a fleet of British men o’ war foundered because of inaccurate navigation with the loss of thousands of lives. Harrison developed a series of ground-breaking time-keepers which helped give the Royal Navy command of the seas in good time to protect our trade routes. (Is anyone surprised to hear that Parliament tried to rip him off? It took direct intervention by King George III to extract the dosh.) Besides his precision engineering Harrison deserves a place in any history of motor cycling because he made the first accurate, portable timepieces. And accurate clocks played a critical part in the motor cycle sport that in turn improved the breed.

GERMAN CLERIC Ewald Georg von Kleist and Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek of Leyden independently developed an electrical capacitor that came to known as a Leyden Jar. It comprised a water-filled glass bottle with a metal spike through the stopper.


BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (still technically a Brit, as the American colonies would not rebel against the Crown for another 30 years) coined the term “battery” to describe an array of Leyden jars (capacitors). He used the extra power for a range of experiments, including electrifying wine glasses. This must have been a bit of a shock for his victims, who could have had no idea where the pain came from. That Ben, what a zany sense of humour!

Benjamin Franklin coined the military term ‘battery’ for an array of primitive capacitors.

A LOCKWORK CARRIAGE was driven in Paris by versatile inventor Jacques de Vaucanson, probably. His main claim to fame was a mechanical duck that ate and pooed. No, really.


DOCTOR ROBISON of Glasgow University introduced James Watt to the concept of steam engines and suggested that they might be used to propel carriages. Watt built working models using tin cylinders and pistons attached to driving wheels by a system of gears.


SWISS CLERGYMAN JH Genevois proposed to mount small windmills on a sail-driven cart to wind springs that would provide power when the wind failed or was in the wrong direction. The idea might have been inspired by DuQuet’s windmill-powered cart back in 1713-14. Genevois also had plans for spring powered marine engines; in this case the springs would be compressed by a steam or gunpowder engine.


JAMES WATT was sent a Newcomen steam engine to repair and found a way to make it more efficient. He produced a steam engine that cooled the used steam in a condenser, slashing running costs.

Newcomen made it, Watt improved it. Steam engines paved the way for I/C engines; they also powered the first motor cycles,


BRUMMY BUSINESSMAN Matthew Boulton opened the Soho Manufactory engineering works in Handsworth. This site would be at the heart of the industrial revolution.

STEAM TRANSPORT enthusiast Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) looked to the future when he wrote:
Soon shall they arm, unconquered steam, afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
On, on, wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying chariot through the fields of air.
Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move,
Or warrior bands alarm the gaping crowds,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud.


DR RICHARD WATSON, later the Bishop of Leadoff, published his Chemical Essays. His description of the distillation of coal to produce flammable gas was widely read.


FRENCH ARMY engineer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot designed a self-propelled vehicle based on a model he had made six years before; it was built at the Paris Arsenal by a mechanic naned Brezin. The fardier a vapeur (steam dray) had a top speed of 4mph, or 2mph towing a canon, running on two iron-rimmed wheels at the back and one at the front. It had to stop every 10 minutes to rebuild steam pressure but still caused the world’s first RTC when it wrecked a garden wall. So chapeaux off pour le garcon Cugnot. It was crude, but it worked: all the evidence suggests that he was the first human being to move across the face of the earth by the power of an engine.

Not only did Cugnot’s fardier a vapeur gun carriage use pressurised steam; he also worked out how to convert up-and-down power from its two 13in-diameter cylinders into rotary power, using a ratchet-and-pawl system.

JOHN SMEATON experimented with Newcomen engines and built improved engines with a much longer stroke delivering up to 80hp.

FRANCIS MOORE was granted a patent (No 921, dated 14 March) for “machines or engines, made of wood, iron, brass, copper or other metal, to be wrought or put in motion by fire, water or air, with a small assistance of horses or manual labour, which will be very useful in agriculture, carriage of persons, goods and navigation, by causing ships, boats, barges and other vessels to proceed with more swiftness”.


CUGNOT BUILT a four-seat passenger version of his steam trike. Here’s a ‘what-if’ for you: say Boney had grasped its potential. Given the resources of the Empire and 20 years to work in, could Cugnot have developed self-propelled guns to use against ‘perfidious Albion’? Let’s be glad Cugnot didn’t do it better, while applauding him lustily for doing it at all.

JESSE RAMSDEN developed a screw-cutting lathe, which he used to make other more accurate lathes.


ENGINEER WATT teamed up with entrepreneur Boulton. For the next 11 years Boulton’s manufactory produced and sold Watt’s steam engines, mainly to colliery owners. Size for size they were four times more powerful than Newcomen engines.


ABOUT 600 NEWCOMEN engines were working throughout the UK in mines, water pumping stations and ironworks. Another 1,000 were in action by 1800, many of them in mills and factories as the industrial revolution gathered pace. Several dozen improved Savery engines were also built.

WATT AND BOULTON entered into a formal partnership; Watt’s patent was extended by Act of Parliament for 25 years until 1800.


MATTHEW WASBROUGH of Bristol adapted a Newcomen engine for Brummy manufacturer James Pickard with a crank and flywheel to produce rotary motion. This was just what was needed to power Pickard’s machinery and, in due course, the machines that made parts for motorcycles. Good old Matt, says I.

Matthew Wasborough put the steam engine into a spin.


ALLESANDRO VOLTA made a toy pistol in which an electric spark exploded a mixture of hydrogen and air to fire a cork.

RICHARD TREVITHICK built a double-acting high-pressure engine with a crank, for Cook’s Kitchen Mine. This was known as the Puffer, from the noise that it made, and it soon came into general use in Cornwall and South Wales as a successful rival to Watt’s low-pressure steam vacuum engine.

A FRENCHMAN named Dallery built a steam carriage that ran on the streets of Amien. It is said to have featured a boat shaped body and what could be the first use of a multi-tube boiler.


JONATHAN HORNBLOWER patented a two-cylinder ‘compound’ engine which was more efficient than Watt’s single-acting designs but similar enough to his double-acting system that Boulton and Watt were able to have the patent overturned by the courts in 1799.


Bolton, Watt and Murdoch played a critical role in the pre-history f the motor cycle.

SCOTTISH ENGINEER William Murdock walked 300 miles to ask for a job at Boulton and Watt’s manufactory and he was working there when James Watt patented the sun-and-planet system that converted linear motion to rotating motion, allowing steam power to be used to “produce a continued Rotative or Circular Motion round an Axis or Centre, and thereby to give Motion to the Wheels of Mills or other Machines”…such as self-propelled vehicles. There is conclusive evidence that it was Murdock’s idea. So it’s hardly surprising that he became interested in steam-powered road vehicles and he translated that dream into reality with a working model. It was only a couple of feet long but fast

Murdock’s runaway model gave the local vicar a diabolical thrill.

enough to outpace Murdoch when he tried it out. At which point the runaway steamer freaked out the local vicar who thought it was the devil and took to his heels. Murdock clearly planned to build a full sized steam locomotive but Watt forbade him from diverting his energies away from maintaining and improving the company’s steam engines; ironically Murdock was also required to help his boss take legal action against anyone who infringed Boulton and Watt patents. Richard Trevithick, who was to build Britain’s first steam-powered roadster, was shown the model in action in about 1790 and worked with Murdock. His full-sized steamer (1801 in case you were wondering) was clearly inspired by the Murdock design. Murdock also developed the production and storage of coal gas to generate  light. In time gas would also be used to power internal combustion engines. Here’s a nice postscript: a century of so later Murdock’s model steamer ended up next to Symmington’s model steamer on show in, of all places, Melbourne.

Redruth, 2004: a team of enthusiasts known as The Murdock Boys set out to finish the job and build a working steam locomotive based on William Murdock’s model. It took them three years and here she is: The Murdock Flier. Yes, she moves under her own steam. William would have been pleased.

HENRY CORT developed a faster way of converting brittle pig iron into wrought iron suitable for making tools. Instead of hammering and re-heating the pig iron Cort heated it with coke, stirred it with rods and passed it between rollers. This cut the time needed to convert a ton of pig iron from 12 hours to 45 minutes. Costs of iron fell as supplies increased, giving another useful boost to the industrial revolution.

LORD DUNDONALD, father of dashing naval hero Sir Thomas Cochrane, patented a novel process for manufacturing mineral tar and travelled the country with his ‘philosophical fire works’ which, according to a contemporary report, “were deemed a great curiosity”.


IT WAS A BAD year for steam transport pioneers. When Oliver Evans, sometimes dubbed ‘The Watt of America’ petitioned Pennsylvania congressmen for exclusive rights to run ‘steam carriages’ in the state they decided the application “savoured too much of insanity to deserve notice”.

JAMES WATT WROTE: “I wish William [Murdock] could be brought to do as we do, to mind the business in hand and let such as [Henry] Symington and Sadler throw away their time and money in hunting shadows.” It would be another 15 years before Richard Trevithick built a full sized steamer. Watt used his patent on steam transport to clamp down on other pioneers. However Henry’s son William (who had built a steam boast, at Leadhills, Scotland in 1763) collaborated with his dad to completed a working model of a steam carriage . The manager of the Warlockhead lead mine, where Symington Snr was chief engineer, was said to be “so pleased with the model, the merit of which principally belonged to young Symington, that he sent him into Edinburgh for the purpose of exhibiting it before the professors of the University and other scientific gentlemen of the city in the hope that it might lead in some way to his future advancement in life.” It was well received but the state of the roads and logistics problems led William to abandon further development. 

Symington’s steamer worked; pity it wasn’t developed into a full-size vehicle.

JAMES SADLER of Oxford (who two years earlier had made a 170ft hot-air balloon to become the first English aeronaut , making a six-mile flight and ascending to more than 3,000ft) was working on a steam-powered carriage. Boulton and Watt threatened Sadler with legal action for infringing Watt’s patent covering the application of steam power for the propulsion of road vehicles. Undaunted Sadler went on (in 1791) to patent a rotary steam engine and gave public performances of ‘philosophical fire-works’ in Oxford Town Hall.


A SEMINAL WATT engine known as the Lap Engine was installed at Boulton’s Manufactory. It boasted Watt’s parallel motion valve gear and centrifugal governor, which is still in use today. The Lap Engine was designed to drive lapping and polishing machinery. But Pickard had patented the crank-and-flywheel system so Watt extracted the all-important rotary power via a sun-and-planet set-up. They built engines to last: it remained in action until the factory ceased production in 1858.

Watt’s ‘Lap Engine’ used a sun-and-planet arrangement to avoid patent problems.


COMTE DE SIVRAC produced a two-wheeled rolling chassis which he called cheval de bois, or wooden horse and gave it an outing the gardens of the Palais Royal in Paris. It became known as the celerifere which translates as ‘fast-goer’ though it probably wasn’t. Judging by contemporary drawings it lacked pedals, brakes or steering, but you have to start somewhere. These clumsy machines became increasingly popular among the sporting set of Paris. Clubs were formed and races were run along the Champs Elysees.

Two wheels and a frame: the celerifere.
In the 1790ps French dandies were staging cekerifere races in Paris.

FOLLOWING A century devoted to the development of steam engines John Barber patented “an engine for using inflammable air for the purpose of producing motion”. Gas, produced by heating wood, coal or oil in a retort, was cooled in a receiver, mixed with air and pumped into a vessel called the Exploder. Here it was ignited; the resulting stream of flame drove the vanes of a paddle wheel. Not exactly advanced technology (compare it with Hero’s aeolipile of 60AD) but this was the world’s first gas engine—and how cool would it have looked at night!

This original sketch from Barber’s patent application depicts the first gas engine.

THE SEARCH for new fuels continued: Robert Street patented the use of oil as “a means of producing motive power by explosion”.

CHROMIUM WASextracted from lead chromate by Louis Vauquelain; it would be in demand for the production of stainless steel and, of course, as a shiny, corrosion resistant surface on motor cycle components. Chrome polish came later.


THE FIRST houses and offices were being lit by coal gas, in Redruth, Cornwall.


IRONMASTER PHILLIP Vaughan of Carmarthen patented a ballrace.

ROBERT STREET designed a gas-fuelled engine with a cylinder and piston—but, two years after those wiley Cornish folk started to light their hovels with coal gas, Street’s ‘inflammable vapour’ was obtained by sprinkling turpentine at the bottom of a cylinder which was heated by a furnace. A hand-operated air pump was then used to charge the cylinder with air, causing the piston to rise about 25% of its stroke. Heat from the furnace ignited the fuel/air mixture driving the piston to the upper end of the cylinder, which was water-cooled. The power stroke lifted one end of a rocking-beam pump to remove water from a mine. As cylinder pressure and temperature fell, so did the piston.


THE MODERN ‘slide rest’ lathe, capable of cutting threads with great precision, was invented by Henry Maudslay. Instead of being manipulated by hand, the cutting tool was clamped solidly in a tool post carried on a slide rest movable along accurately finished guides on the bed of the machine. For many years the slide rest was known as ‘Maudslay’s Go-Cart’.” His techniques had significant influence on a number of great engineers including Joseph Whitworth.

Maudslay’s first screw cutting lathe pointed the way to the mass-produced fasteners that hold our bikes together.

OVER THE  POND, one Samuel Morey from New Hampshire took a group of politicians for a ride in his paddle steamer. They chose to back Fulton’s steamship instead, leading Morey to growl: “Blast his belly! He stole my patent!” Morey takes no further part in our story but, fuelled by bitterness, he slogged away for the next 30 years and came up with a number of clever gadgets.


ALESSANDRO VOLTA made the first electrical battery, known as a Voltaic Cell. It comprised alternating zinc and silver discs, separated by brine-soaked cloth. He built the pile, which contained up to30 disks, in imitation of the electric organ of the torpedo fish. Volta’s development of the first continuous and reproducible source of electrical current was an important step in the study of electromagnetism and the development of electrical equipment such as magnetos, alternators and dynamos.

Alessandro Volta’s Voltaic Cell, the ancestor of every battery on the planet.

RICHARD TREVITHICK built his first high-pressure engine at Dolcoath tin mine in Cornwall.

GEORGE MEDHURST patented an “improved aeolian engine” powered by compressed air. He dreamed of air-driven stage coaches relying on roadside ‘compressor stations’. Later Medhurst would promote “a new system for the conveyance for goods and passengers…with the velocity of sixty miles in an hour…without the aid of horses or any animal power”.