While working at the University of Glasgow as an instrument maker and repairman in 1759, James Watt was introduced to the power of steam by Professor John Robison. Fascinated, Watt took to reading everything he could on the subject, and independently developed the concept of latent heat, only recently published by Joseph Black at the same university. When Watt learned that the University owned a small working model of a Newcomen engine, he pressed to have it returned from London where it was being unsuccessfully repaired. Watt repaired the machine, but found it was barely functional even when fully repaired.
After working with the design, Watt concluded that 80% of the steam used by the engine was wasted. Instead of providing motive force, it was instead being used to heat the cylinder. In the Newcomen design, every power stroke was started with a spray of cold water, which not only condensed the steam, but also cooled the walls of the cylinder. This heat had to be replaced before the cylinder would accept steam again. In the Newcomen engine the heat was supplied only by the steam, so when the steam valve was opened again the vast majority condensed on the cold walls as soon as it was admitted to the cylinder. It took a considerable amount of time and steam before the cylinder warmed back up and the steam started to fill it up.
Watt solved the problem of the water spray by removing the cold water to a different cylinder, placed beside the power cylinder. Once the induction stroke was complete a valve was opened between the two, and any steam that entered the cylinder would condense inside this cold cylinder. This would create a vacuum that would pull more of the steam into the cylinder, and so on until the steam was mostly condensed. The valve was then closed, and operation of the main cylinder continued as it would on a conventional Newcomen engine. As the power cylinder remained at operational temperature throughout, the system was ready for another stroke as soon as the piston was pulled back to the top. Maintaining the temperature was a jacket around the cylinder where steam was admitted. Watt produced a working model in 1765.
Photo and references:
- Energy Hall | See ‘Old Bess’ at work”. Science Museum. Retrieved 2012-01-26.