In the English county of Monmouthshire, near Wales, a region of coal mines and iron works, there are the ruins of Raglan Castle, about a mile from a village of the same name. To these ruins let pilgrims repair who delight to visit places where great things began; for here once dwelt the Marquis of Worcester, who first made steam work for men. The same family still owns the site; as indeed it does the greater part of the county; the head of the family being now styled the Duke of Beaufort. The late Lord Raglan, commander of the English forces in the Crimea, belonged to this house, and showed excellent taste in selecting for his title a name so interesting. Perhaps, however, he never thought of the old tower of Raglan Castle, which is still marked and indented where the second Marquis of Worcester set up his steam-engine two hundred and twenty years ago. Very likely he had in mind the time when the first marquis held the castle for Charles I. against the Roundheads, and baffled them for two months, though he was then eighty-five years of age. It was the son of that valiant and tough old warrior who put steam into harness, and defaced his ancestral tower with a ponderous and imperfect engine.
For many centuries before his time something had been known of the power of steam; and the Egyptians, a century or more before Christ, had even made certain steam toys, which we find described in a manuscript written about 120 B. C., at Alexandria, by a learned compiler and inventor named Hero. One of these was in the form of a man pouring from a cup a libation to the gods. The figure stood upon an altar, and it was connected by a pipe with a kettle of water underneath. On lighting a fire under the kettle, the water was forced up through the figure, and flowed out of the cup upon the altar. Another toy was a revolving copper globe, which was kept in motion by the escape of steam from two little pipes bent in the same direction. Of this contrivance the French Professor Arago once wrote: –
„This was, beyond doubt, a machine in which steam engendered motion, and could produce mechanical effects. It was a veritable steam-engine! Let us hasten, however, to add that it bears no resemblance, either by its form or in mode of action, to steam-engines now in use.”
Other steam devices are described by Hero. By one a horn was blown, and by another figures were made to dance upon an altar. But there is no trace in the ancient world of the application of steam to an important useful purpose. Professor Thurston of Hoboken, in his excellent work upon the „History of the Steam-Engine,” has gleaned from the literature of the last seven hundred years several interesting allusions to the nature and power of steam. In 1125 there was, it appears, at Rheims in France, some sort of contrivance for blowing a church organ by the aid of steam. There is an allusion, also, in a French sermon of 1571, to the awful power in volcanic eruptions of a small quantity of confined steam. There are traces of steam being made to turn a spit upon which meat was roasted. An early French writer mentions the experiment of exploding a bomb-shell nearly filled with water by putting it into a fire. In 1630 King Charles the First of England granted to David Ramseye a patent for nine different contrivances, among which were the following: –
„To raise water from low pits by fire. To make any sort of mills to go on standing waters by continual motion without help of wind, water, or horse. To make boats, ships, and barges to go against strong wind and tide. To raise water from mines and coal pits by a way never yet in use.”
This was in 1630, which was about the date of the Marquis of Worcester’s engine. It is possible, however, that these devices existed only in the imagination of the inventor. The marquis was then twenty-nine years of age, and as he was curious in matters of science, it is highly probable that he was acquainted with this patent, and may have conversed with the inventor.
It is strange how little we know of a man so important as the Marquis of Worcester in our modern industrial development. I believe that not one of the histories of England mentions him, and scarcely anything is known of the circumstances that led to his experimenting with steam. Living in a county of coal and iron mines, and his own property consisting very much in coal lands, his attention must of necessity have been called to the difficulties experienced by the miners in pumping the water from the deep mines. There were mines which employed as many as five hundred horses in pumping out the water, and it was a thing of frequent occurrence for a productive mine to be abandoned because the whole revenue was absorbed in clearing it of water. This inventor was perhaps the man in England who had the greatest interest in the contrivance to which in early life he turned his mind.
He was born in the year 1601, and sprung from a family whose title of nobility dated back to the fourteenth century. He is described by his English biographer as a learned, thoughtful, and studious Roman Catholic; as public-spirited and humane; as a mechanic, patient, skillful, full of resources, and quick to comprehend. He inherited a great estate, not perhaps so very productive in money, but of enormous intrinsic value. There is reason to believe that he began to experiment with steam soon after he came of age. He describes one of his experiments, probably of early date: –
„I have taken a piece of a whole cannon, whereof the end was burst, and filled it with water three quarters full, stopping and screwing up the broken end, as also the touch-hole, and making a constant fire under it. Within twenty-four hours it burst, and made a great crack.”
That the engine which he constructed was designed to pump water is shown by the very name which he gave it, – „the water-commanding engine,” – and, indeed, it was never used for any other purpose. The plan of it was very simple, and, without improvements, it could have answered its purposes but imperfectly. It consisted of two vessels from which the air was driven alternately by the condensation of steam within them, and into the vacuum thus created the water rushed from the bottom of the mine. He probably had his first machine erected before 1630, when he was still a young man, and he spent his life in endeavors to bring his invention into use. In doing this he expended so large a portion of his fortune, and excited so much ridicule, that he died comparatively poor and friendless. I think it probable, however, that his poverty was due rather to the civil wars, in which his heroic old father and himself were so unfortunate as to be on the losing side. He attempted to form a company for the introduction of his machine, and when he died without having succeeded in this, his widow still persisted in the same object, though without success. He did, however, make several steam-engines besides the one at Raglan Castle; engines which did actually answer the purpose of raising water from considerable depths in a continuous stream. He also erected near London a steam fountain, which he describes.
During the next century several important improvements were made in the steam-engine, but without rendering it anything like the useful agent which we now possess. When James Watt began to experiment, about the year 1760, in his little shop near the Glasgow University, the steam-engine was still used only for pumping water, and he soon discovered that it wasted three fourths of the steam. He once related to a friend how the idea of his great improvement, that of saving the waste by a condenser, occurred to his mind. He was then a poor mechanic living upon fourteen shillings a week.
„I had gone to take a walk,” he said, „on a fine Sabbath afternoon. I had entered the Green by the gate at the foot of Charlotte Street, and had passed the old washing-house. I was thinking upon the engine at the time, and had gone as far as the herd’s house, when the idea came into my mind that, as steam was an elastic body, it would rush into a vacuum, and, if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder.”
He had found it! Before he had crossed the Green, he added, „the whole thing was arranged in my mind.” Since that memorable day the invention has been ever growing; for, as Professor Thurston well remarks: „Great inventions are never the work of any one mind.” From Hero to Corliss is a stretch of nearly twenty centuries; during which, probably, a thousand inventive minds have contributed to make the steam-engine the exquisite thing it is to-day.