The History of Steam Power in America

Few innovations have had as significant of an impact on our culture like the establishment of steam power. Developed slowly over several hundreds of years, it has grown from large and expensive devices into smaller and more practical pieces of equipment that help shaped the United States. To truly appreciate how life was changed by the invention of devices such as steam-generating boilers then it’s important to understand the full impact on history that steam power had in early America.

The Road of Invention

Unlike other inventions in history, the use of steam power cannot be credited to a single source. Though experiments with steam power date back to early Greeks, it wasn’t until the early 18th century when Englishman Thomas Newcomen unveiled a steam-powered pump that modern steam power history really takes off. From there technology began to develop to utilize steam instead of relying on the wind, water, or animal labor.

From Newcomen’s early pump that was used to draw water from mines, other devices were created to assist in a range of physically demanding labor tasks. By the mid 18th-century inventor James Watt took Newcomen’s innovation to the next level by adding a separate condenser. This allowed for a more efficient steam-powered device that only required half as much coal to use and led to the creation of more modernized steam-generating boilers.

The Importance of the Steam-generating Boiler

Boilers are boxes that use internal fire to heat water into steam. Beginning with smaller, kettle-style boilers, these devices helped revolutionize many machines at the time. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that George Babcock and Steven Wilcox patented the first true steam boiler design. Using tubes inside a firebrick structure to generate steam, their boiler was the first in a long line that would help shape America. Though small and dependent on small lumps of coal to stay heated, the brick walls were able to create an enclosure that helped the combustion process by reradiating heat back into the furnace area.

These boilers are an important chapter in steam power history as they made steam power far more affordable. No longer was steam generation only done by large machines that would be housed in buildings. Thanks to more cost effective steam-generating boilers, everyday people could begin to utilize steam power, which resulted in a profound societal change in America toward labor practices as well as sparking what is known as the Industrial Revolution.

Steam’s Role in the Industrial Revolution

The invention of practical steam-powered machinery had an immediate impact on employment throughout the America of the time. Coal fueled steam engines lead to the creation of factories to produce goods formerly made by hand. This also drove people from living on farms into the growing cities to find work. Industries that utilized steam-generating boilers made labor less physically intensive as well. This improved the quality of life for many and also gave rise to what we know as the middle class.

Beyond changing the workplace, steam power evolved daily livelihoods in other ways. Soon after factories were established came the birth of the power industry. The advent of new boilers and companies allowed for the distribution of electricity to residential and industrial centers. The need for greater capacity power generation is another step in the history of steam power and it pushed boilers to move beyond the brick face structures to tube designs that could handle higher temperatures generated to produce more steam per hour while also costing significantly less to build.

Steam Power Goes Mobile

Besides allowing for the rise of manufacturing, the creation of steam-generating boilers also revolutionized the transportation industry. Prior to the utilization of steam boilers, many people and products could only be moved by animal driven carts. Once patented, steam engines played a crucial role in the development of other modes of transportation such as locomotives and steam-powered ships.

With trains and ships now becoming standard modes of transportation, goods could be shipped greater distances at less cost. Steam-powered transportation also allowed for people and supplies to travel greater distances. This proved an important part in the opening up of America as the western front was pushed farther toward the Pacific coastline. Steam propulsion also opened up southern areas of the United States as steamboats became a common sight on the rivers that carved through the south.

Growth & Industrial Specialization

Steam power history doesn’t end with the Industrial Revolution, however. Boilers in America continued to grow and change well into the 1950s and 1960s. The development of the membrane tube wall during this time eliminated the need for refractory for keeping the fire inside the firebox, reduced construction timelines and costs, and increased the size of the boilers. The resulting steam-generating boiler behemoths could then reach more than 1,300 megawatts of electricity or 9,000,000 pounds of steam per hour, ideal for providing power for entire city grids.

Not only did these new generators allow for greater overall use, but they allowed for more specialized use too. Specifically modified boilers are now designed to suit a variety of applications, including in medical, college, and government facilities. Shop-assembled boilers have continued to be an important facet of many industries such as paper manufacturing or in distilleries as well.

Top Service Since 1948

Manley’s Boiler, Inc. has proudly been a part of this history since 1948, when John Manley left the boiler union to create a company of his own. Manley’s Boiler is a top steam-generating boiler service company today. Dedicated to customer service, Manley’s Boiler, Inc. has grown from predominantly a service company into a full warehouse and boiler rental company. Along with 24/7 superior service, a wide collection of rental boilers and parts, Manley’s Boiler also provides consulting and training.

Steam’s Vital Impact

Power generated from steam in the United States has a long history. Over the last few centuries, it has continued to develop and become specialized as the needs of people change. Steam-generating boilers and engines have played a vital role over the course of American history from early colonial days through the Industrial Revolution and are even important in today’s modern manufacturing processes. Without steam-powered devices the labor and transportation practices we appreciate today would be vastly different. American history is tied in with the history of steam power—it is one of the most important innovations in human history.

Become a part of history with a steam-generating boiler of your own. Visit Manley’s Boiler today and contact us with any questions.