Thomas Newcomen
born  24th February 1663/4, Foss Street, Dartmouth, Devon, UK
baptised  24th February 1663/4, St Saviour’s church, Anzac Street, Dartmouth, Devon, UK
died  5th August 1729, Bermondsey, London, UK
buried  8th August 1729, Bunhill Fields Burial Grounds, Islington, London, UK
era  Stuart
Written by Eleanor Knowles, edited by Jane Joyce
Thomas Newcomen was the modern world’s first great mechanical engineer. Three hundred years ago he created the first practical steam engine — an atmospheric steam-powered stationary machine for the draining of water from mines. His work was the first step along the path to the British Industrial Revolution of the mid 18th century.
Newcomen was a modest man. He was variously described as a locksmith, an ironmonger and a blacksmith, and he spent most of his life in Dartmouth in south Devon. But he is also a man of mystery, as there is no known portrait of him and only two surviving letters in his own hand.
However, he did know all about the problems experienced by miners in Britain's south west, where copper, tin and other metals were plentiful, and mines had to be drained and metals extracted using little more than hand tools and candlelight. He started to experiment, making models of pumping engines that would do the work of several horses, before progressing to the building of the real thing.
Unlike Thomas Savery's earlier attempts at a mechanical pump, Newcomen's engine had moving parts. To drive it, he used the power of steam generated using a coal-fired boiler — and the design was beautifully simple, perfect for the limited manufacturing technology of the time. It's likely that Newcomen started his engine-building career in Cornwall, though the earliest-known working example was completed in 1712 at Coneygree colliery in the West Midlands, where coal was plentiful.
The Newcomen engine was widely used in Britain, Europe and the USA, and at least 1,500 of them would be built by the year 1800. Along the way, its efficiency was improved by James Watt in 1769. But it wouldn't be until 1801, almost 90 years after Newcomen's first atmospheric engine, that Richard Trevithick would take the next big leap and develop the steam locomotive.
NOTE ... In England before 1752, the first day of the year was 25th March, not 1st January. So Newcomen, who was born on 24th February, was born in 1663 Old Style and 1664 New Style. This is usually written 1663/4.
introduction  •  early years  •  ironmongery and steam  •  first atmospheric engine  •  engines everywhere  •  Baptist faith  •  final years  •  legacy  •  sources
All items by Thomas Newcomen  •  Everything built ... 1664 - 1729
main reference  Transactions of the Newcomen Society

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Newcomen engine at Farme Colliery, Rutherglen
The Newcomen engine (1810) installed at Farme Colliery, Rutherglen in South Lanarkshire, Scotland (now re-erected at Summerlee, Coatbridge, Glasgow). The photo was taken c.1905.
Image: © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection, www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums