THOMAS NEWCOMEN (1663-1729)

1712 – England

‘Uses the property of condensing steam to create a partial vacuüm in a cylinder and therefore pull a piston. The system was highly inefficient but was used to pump water from mines’

Today, the credit for the steam engine is usually given to James Watt, while the name Thomas Newcomen remains shrouded in obscurity.

The design of his low-pressure steam engine involved heating water underneath a large piston that was encased in a cylinder.

Steam that was released as a result of the heating forced the piston upwards. A jet of water was then released from a tank above the piston. The sudden cooling of the steam made it condense, creating a partial vacuüm which atmospheric pressure then pushed down on, forcing the piston downwards again. The piston was attached to a two-headed lever, the other side of which was attached to a pump in the mineshaft. As it moved up and down, the lever moved likewise and a pumping motion was created in the shaft, which could be used to eject floodwater.

The first engine could remove about 120 gallons per minute, completing about twelve strokes in that time, and had the equivalent of about 5.5 horsepower. Even though the engine was still not particularly powerful, was hugely inefficient to run, and burnt huge amounts of coal, it would work reliably 24-hours a day.

The steam engine originally developed by Newcomen for work in the mines was quickly developed by engineers like JAMES WATT and RICHARD TREVITHICK (1771-1833) into the steam locomotive.

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JOSEPH BLACK (1728- 99)

1757 – Edinburgh

‘Different quantities of heat are required to bring equal weights of different materials to the same temperature’

This definition relates to the concept of specific heat.

Through meticulous experimentation and measurement of results he discovered the concept of ‘latent heat’, the ability of matter to absorb heat without necessarily changing in temperature.
True in the transformation of ice into water at 0degrees C, the same principle applies in the process of transforming water to steam and indeed, all solids to liquids and all liquids to gases.
Through this work Black made the important distinction between heat and temperature.

JAMES WATT benefited from these discoveries during his development of the condensing steam engine.

‘Fixed Air’

Black’s insistence on the importance of quantitative experiments was a step towards setting the standard for modern chemistry.

Black found that heating or treating carbonate salts with acid resulted in the release of a gas that, he reasoned, must have been ‘fixed’ in the solids. He outlined the cycle of chemical changes from limestone (calcium carbonate) to quicklime (calcium oxide) and ‘fixed air’ (carbon dioxide) when heated; quicklime mixed with water to become slaked lime (calcium hydroxide); which when combined with ‘fixed air’ becomes limestone again (turning the solution cloudy).

Although JAN BAPTISTA VAN HELMONT had identified the existence of separate, distinct gases in air over a century before, Black is still often credited with the discovery of carbon dioxide (fixed air) – despite that van Helmont had clearly been aware of its existence.

Black was able to prove that carbon dioxide is made by respiration, through fermentation and in the burning of charcoal, but that the gas would not allow a candle to burn in it nor sustain animal life.

Black’s student Daniel Rutherford (1749 – 1819) called the gas ‘mephitic air’ after the mephitis of legend, a noxious emanation said to cause pestilence, for animals died in an atmosphere of the new gas. Rutherford’s ‘air’ is not, however, the same as Lavoisier’s mephitic air, which is nitrogen (azote).

Observing the effect that removing carbon dioxide from limestone made the latter more alkaline, Black deduced that carbon dioxide is an acidic gas.

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