The building blocks of innovation and the history of the steam locomotive

At the Sketching in Hardware conference this year I spoke about a few subjects I’ve become very passionate about: the history of the steam locomotive, behaviours that foster innovation and OpenIDEO.

I somehow found a way to string these things together into a cohesive whole, looking at the building blocks of innovation that allowed the steam locomotive to be invented. It was a fun presentation to research and deliver, so I thought I would share some of it here…

Let’s start in the 1st century BC… at the Aeolipile!

The first recorded steam engine was the Aeolipile, a bronze sphere filled with water, when heated, steam emerged through outlets causing the sphere to rotate.

Alas, “such a device was for the Greeks only a curiosity, not a source of power.” *

Here we see the first instance of an innovation as curiosity. The steam engine had no killer app. Sure, let’s give the Greeks a break it was the first century BC after all, but you could argue that steam was relegated to curiosity due to both a lack of complimentary technologies (knowledge and abilities to harness steam) and lack of market demand for the functional benefit that steam offered.

We see this pattern of innovation as curiosity with another great invention… Electricity. In the early days of electricity, inventors (such as Ben Franklin) amused themselves with tricks like the dangling Electrified Boy for lack of a practical application of the new technology. The dangling Electrified Boy trick, by the way, involved hanging a boy upside down, covered in non-conductive clothing, leaving his hands and feet bare. When someone touched his feet with an electrified glass tube, the boy could create sparks with his fingers or cause a pile of brass leaves on the ground to float towards him. As far as electricity tricks go, it was pretty cool.

Electricity was the unyielding mistress of showmen, magicians, tinkerers, scientists, who created ever-more curious parlor tricks in an effort to discover practical applications. At one point Franklin wrote his friend in London, “If there is no other use discovered of electricity, this however is considerable, that it may make a vain man humble.” *

For electricity, the killer apps came one upon another, the battery, the incandescent light.

For steam power, the killer app came as a response to new market demands of the 18th century, that of coal mining…

Coal mines had become serious business by the 1700’s, with innovations that meant mines could be dug deeper. In these deep mines, water seepage became a major hazard and there needed to be a way to drain the water out of mines that worked better than animal power.

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen built the first stationary steam engine, The Atmospheric Engine. He was a blacksmith and a tinkerer. He built his engine to pump water out of coal mines, responding to the market need at hand and, as a result, propelled us further forward into the industrial revolution.

For those of you raising your hands at this point, don’t panic, in the next installment of this blog I’m going to talk about James Watt and further innovation building blocks that led up to the steam locomotive.

In terms of the innovation work we do today, there are many curious innovations looking for a killer app. I’ve spent time on a lot of projects gathering and surveying these in the hopes of creating killer apps and on OpenIDEO we collect curious innovations amongst other inspirations at the start of any design challenge.

Sometimes the market isn’t quite there yet, or our knowledge isn’t sufficient enough. But it’s good to know that inventors before us had similar problems.

Innovation as a build

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in steam technology came 50 years after Newcomen first invented the Atmospheric EngineJames Watt, an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, tinkered with Newcomen’s engine and saw a flaw in its design. Watt built on Newcomen’s design by adding a steam condenser, a vacuum chamber that condensed steam without having to lose energy in heating and cooling the surrounding metal cylinder. It was such a huge breakthrough that James Watt is often referred to as the inventor of the steam engine.

Innovation & entrepreneurship

The steam condenser was only Watt’s first step in establishing the power of the steam engine as the driving force of the industrial revolution. Very importantly, after prototyping the new engine, Watt formed a partnership with James Boulton to manufacture these engines reliably and at scale. The availability and increased power of the steam engine led to its adoption in other industries such as to power weaving looms for textile factories.

Here we see Watt’s transition from engineer tinkerer to entrepreneur, under the guidance of Boulton, and that invention needs business in order to sustain itself and to create impact in the wider world. At the same time Victorian laws empowered the entrepreneur through the invention of legal concepts like limited liability, which allowed individuals to invest in ventures such as the Boulton & Watt engine.

Ideas that inspire

Watt continued to build upon the steam engine design, next creating the steam engine governer, a feedback mechanism that detected the steam produced by the engine and using that as input regulated the machine itself to produce a steady supply of power.

Here we see the power of an idea and its ability to influence inventions in other fields. The concept of a self-regulating mechanism that required no human intervention inspired other inventors like Charles Babbage and influenced the creation of feedback loops in other types of machines. Babbage himself wrote of the governer, “”that beautiful contrivance, the governor of the steam-engine … Whenever the increased speed of the engine would lead to injurious or dangerous consequences, this [the governor] is applied; and it is equally the regulator of the water-wheel which drives a spinning-jenny.”‘
Herbert Sussman. Victorian Technology: Invention, Innovation, and the Rise of the Machine (Victorian Life and Times) (p. 13).

Technology driving innovation

From the Boulton & Watt engine, we go to the technology of high-pressured steam. Richard Trevithick was fascinated by the potential of pressurising steam, in 1804 he invented the first high-pressure steam engine, delivering much more power than Watt and Newcomen’s Atmospheric engines.

Evaluating the qualities of his new technology, Trevithick reasoned that the engine could now be more compact, lighter and small enough to carry its own weight even with a carriage attached.

Trevithick proceeded to follow this train of thought by putting his engine on wheels to become carriages for people. When roads did not prove to be efficient and safe surfaces for the steam carriages, Trevithick came up with the idea to put the wheels on railway tracks. He built a circular track, set his steam carriage on it and charged people money to ride around. It was called “The catch me who can” and sparked interest and imagination, but technologies and infrastructures surrounding the engine were not ripe to take the idea fruther.

Innovation as a system

In 1830, George Stephenson unveiled what Trevithick’s breakthroughs had promised, it was The Rocket on Rails, a passenger railway locomotive that ran between Liverpool and Manchester. Here Stephenson understood that in order to create impact with the steam locomotive, he had to build an infrastructure with tracks that spanned the country.

A fare system was also introduced to charge reasonable prices to ordinary people and each person would pay at the level they could afford, receiving the level of service in accordance. This creative business model expanded the market and meant that everyone could ride the train, not just the rich.

Over the next 20 years, the amount of railway would expand to 6,600 miles. Stephenson would also have to work towards standardisation, a term familiar today in technology and unheard of then. As railway tracks and engines were being manufactured by competing companies, each had their own standards for the gauge size of the tracks. During a long journey passengers had to get off the train when different size tracks met and board another train to continue the journey. Stephenson helped to set a gauge standard so that all manufacturers produced the same set of parts, cooperating to further their own industry.

Innovation proliferating upon innovations

The proliferation of the rail network meant that time had to be standardised across England. Prior to this, time was set by the position of the noon sun in each village, causing inconsistencies across the country. This need led to the creation of Greenwich Mean Time and the widespread adoption of the telegraph to communicate this standard time (with telegraph lines running along the railway tracks).

Thus in order to make the holistic system of steam travel work, entire industries had to be born so that all the pieces worked together to create the experience of seamless rail travel.

With the history of the steam locomotive we see the evolution of a raw technology to being built upon and improved into a stable technology, to development into a business and finally the creation of a holistic system to deliver value to society. I’m sure there are a lot of inventions that follow this same trajectory and many more to come. My interest and aim is to understand the nature of innovation in the past in order to drive it in the future – and also I am simply in awe of the stories of tinkering & happenstance (from not so long ago) over things that we think of as being set in stone today.

By the way, you can also view a timeline of this entry on Prezi!


  1. I love this post. u00a0Studying the steam engine is in fact one of the great scientific, industrial, economic and social stories (I know, duh). u00a0What’s better is it is a story that continues on.nnWhen I brooded upon this topic a while back I wondered if maybe we humans haven’t inverted the notion of “invention”. u00a0It is so fun to talk about invention, but your story highlights what the Greeks thought of steam. u00a0I wonder if we as humans need to focus on discovering what “the problem” is, rather than what the solution is.nnAs an engineer and designer it seems we are often inventing early solutions while “obvious” problems lay around unattended too. u00a0I wrote about this a bit myself [shameless link to my own content:u00a0].nnJust added this blog to my RSS. So glad I wandered in via Twitter.nnBest Regards,nJohn

    • Hi John, thanks for reading. I’ve just finished writing this article as well, so I hope you’ll come back to read it.nI like your blog. You cover some interesting topics and I especially liked your reference to Ben Franklin’s apology to printers.I guess for us technologists it’s still fun to revel in the solutions… to dabble in new technologies that seem like they might address something but doesn’t quite yet. Franklin himself spent a lot of time playing with electricity to little avail (aside from surmising that lightning was electricity). In transitioning technology to something impactful, it’s necessary to go through the steps of applying it to a problem or a need, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tinker along the way.Sincerely,Haiyan

  2. Scott Underwood says:

    tap tap tap… is it tomorrow yet?

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