A Brief History of the Steam Engine

Steam has powered trains, cars, boats, and trolleys. Here's the story of the little engine that could.

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Steam has powered trains, cars, boats, and trolleys. Here's the story of the little engine that could.
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First Century
Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria designs the first steam engine; it has a pedestal, an altar, and a rotating ball—but no practical use.
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Mid-1670s
French inventor Denis Papin builds a cooker that traps steam inside a vessel. After adding a valve to keep the device from exploding, he conceives of a piston and cylinder concept using steam.
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1769
The first vehicle to move under its own power, the Cugnot Steam Trolley, is constructed. The machine needs to stop every 15 minutes to build power, and on its first trip around Paris in 1770, it crashes into a wall. (Lucky for the wall, the trolley's top speed is only 2 mph.)
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1775
Scottish engineer James Watt improves on Thomas Newcomen's engine design—which uses atmospheric pressure to help drive a piston—by adding a separate cylinder for cold water so the machine won't waste energy heating and cooling the piston cylinder.
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1814
English engineer George Stephenson builds the first steam locomotive to run on rails. The locomotive carries 30 tons of coal 450 feet uphill at 4 mph. He later constructs the world's first public railways.
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1849
American inventor George Corliss receives a patent for the valve gear that leads to the Corliss steam engine, which has four valves for each cylinder and steam and exhaust valves at each end.
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1896
Stanley Steamers use a fire-tube boiler to power the double-acting two-cylinder engine; they outsell gas vehicles from 1899 to 1905.
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aldenjewell/Flickr
1917
The Doble Model C steam car debuts at the National Automobile Show. The company can produce only 30 of 10,000 orders; it folds in 1931.
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2009
The 3-ton British steam car Inspiration—which uses a turbine rather than a piston engine—breaks the 1906 record for land speed by a steam-powered vehicle when it zooms to an average speed of 148.308 mph. It takes 2 miles and one strong parachute to stop the car.
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2010
Uniflow Power debuts its generator, a small-scale reciprocating steam engine that can bring power to off-the-grid homes across the globe.
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2011
The U.S. Land Steam Record team announces plans to break the 2009 record with its Streamliner; it has a heat-regenerative external-combustion Cyclone engine that runs on many liquid or gas fuels. The vehicle hasn't broken records... yet.
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