The Evolution of the Engine During the Industrial Revolutions

Before the industrial revolution, this was the bee's knees:
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Afterwards, this was:
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So in between something went down.

The first major break from the ways of the wind turbine and water wheel was the development of the steam engine. Prior to the invention of the steam engine, factories could hardly even be called factories and the production of goods was not fast enough to fuel an Industrial Revolution.
While the steam engine was conceptualized well before the Industrial Revolution by French physicist Denis Papin in 1679 and was used by Thomas Savery to pump water from coal mines, it did not become efficient nor safe enough to be of widespread use until Thomas Newcomen developed his iteration of the engine.
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In 1712, Savery and Newcomen entered a partnership to produce the first piston-operated steam engine. Several tweaks were made to the designs in the period between Newcomen's breakthrough and the next important step in the evolution of the engine, but none were able to bring the thermal efficiency above 1 percent. Then, in 1765, James Watt descended from Heaven and decided to make everything better.
Watt's Really Good Engine
Watt's Really Good Engine
While it's kind of complicated how exactly he made the engine better, the bottom line is that he kept the engine's temperature from getting too hot and then getting too cold and instead he kept it at steam temperature, which, according to the 19th century physicist Goldilocks, is just right. Watt, having greatly outdone the 1 percent efficiencys of engines of past, created an engine with a mind-boggling 2 percent thermal efficiency. This extra 1 percent was enough to catch the eye of factory owner Matthew Boulton, and together the dastardly duo of Boulton and Watts built over 500 engines and developed an engine which deviated from the conventional up-and-down motion and instead turned a shaft.

While Watt believed the increased efficieny of a high pressure steam engine was not worth the trade off of safety, inventor Oliver Evans was not such a sissy. Evans, along with several other inventors, raised the steam engine's efficiency to 17 percent and diversified its capabilities. However, these high pressure engines had bothersome tendency to explode and blow everything around them to bits. Thus, Scottish inventor Robert Stirling invented a safer engine, which operated without a high pressure boiler, but no one really cared because it was too expensive.
Steam Engine in Factory
Steam Engine in Factory

During the First Industrial Revolution, developments made to the steam engine allowed advances in technology in every field to happen exponentially. The introduction of an efficient factory made it worthwhile for entrepreneurs to sponsor new goods and thus the diversification of the market. That's enough economics. Back to what really matters.

During the Second Industrial Revolution, scientists and hopeless basement inventors developed what would eventually give Vin Diesel a quasi-legitimate acting career: the internal combustion engine. By the early 1900s, steam engines had forfeited their industrial domination to internal combustion engines, which were far more efficient because "there is no transfer of heat from combustion gases to a secondary working fluid that results in losses in efficiency (Encylopaedia Britannica)."
Above: The Second Industrial Revolution is Responsible for This
Above: The Second Industrial Revolution is Responsible for This

As early as 1678, inventors pondered the theoretics of an engine powered by gun powder. Luckily, gun-powder engines never really came to prominence.

The distillation of gas from coal by William Murdock in 1792 paved the way for a gas powered internal combustion engine. Though it was never mass produced, the gas powered engine of W.L. Wright was a big step towards bringing internal combustion engines into prominence. Following Wright were innovations by William Barnett, Barsanti-Matteuci, and John Lenoir. The most well known early version of the internal combustion engine was that of Dr. Nikolaus August Otto.
Early Otto Engine
Early Otto Engine

The Otto engine was the first to employ a four-stroke cycle, which is till used in nearly every automobile engine today. Engineer extraordinaire Gottlieb Daimler replaced the coal powder fuel of Otto's engine with gasoline, creating the first gasoline powered internal combustion engine. Rudolf Diesel (no relation to Vin) then developed his own engine, which ran on heavy oil and was more efficient than the Otto engine.

From there, factory efficiency and the production of gasoline powered goods took off.

While steam-powered piston engines and gas powered internal combustion engines dominated the two Industrial Revolutions, there were other players in the power game, such as steam turbines, direct energy-conversion devices (HUH?), and something known as the "electric motor." But, alas, it was the development of the steam and gas engines that most changed history and created the beautiful world we live in today.

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  • Safra, Jacob E., and Jorge Aguilar-Cauz, comps. "Energy Conversion." The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. 15th ed. 2007. Print.

Havens, Joel. "A Brief History of the Internal Combustion Engine - Knowledge Base (Wiki)." Main Page - Knowledge Base (Wiki). Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <>.

Steam Engine in a Factory. Digital image. Web. <>.