Science & People

History of steam power – The steam engine timeline

Although the steam power was not used until the 17th century, the scientists had understood its potential for hundreds of years. The Greek scientist, Hero of Alexandria, invented the first steam device called aeolipile that showed the possibilities of water vapor as early as the 1st century AD.

The first steam-powered devices

Aeolipile worked by heating the water in a sphere with two inclined nozzles. When the steam was released from the nozzles, the sphere rotated. Although there was no practical benefit of the device, it was the first example of experiments with steam power. Greater developments took place with the invention of the first steam boiler in the 17th century. Although it was nothing more than a pressure cooker, a series of inventions followed one after another later this point.

At the beginning of the 18th century, engineers understood how steam-powered devices could be used to extract water from mines. This had become an important issue in the face of the increasing demand for coal in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. Scientists soon realized that steam can be used to power engines. Although Thomas Newcomen first discovered the steam engine in 1712, the actual improvements made by James Watt made the device more effective. Watt’s key change was to condense the steam and make it more effective, eliminating the need for the engine to heat and cool the cylinder. In a short time, steam power was used as fuel in ships and locomotives, which allowed the vehicles to go farther and faster. Steam power began to be used in electricity production in the 19th century and continues to be used today, largely utilizing the technology developed in the past centuries.

English engineer Richard Trevithick developed the world's first steam locomotive, adapted his high-pressure engine to iron workshops and steam-powered barges.
English engineer Richard Trevithick developed the world’s first steam locomotive, adapted his high-pressure engine to iron workshops and steam-powered barges.


L.T.C. Rolt, English writer and engineer, Thomas Newcomen: The Prehistory of Steam, 1963

Hero’s steam engine – 1st century

Aeolipile steam engine

The Greek Scientist Heron identifies a device called “aeolipile” with a gushing steam rotating sphere.

The first steam boiler – 1679

The first steam boiler - 1679

French inventor Denis Papin turns the liquid into steam and designs the first pressure cooker-like device.

High-pressure steam engine – 1698

High-pressure steam engine - 1698

In the UK, Thomas Savery used his experience with steam engine to create a machine called “The Miner’s Friend” which extracted water from coal mines, although it was not very successful.

Newcomen steam engine – 1712

steam power device Newcomen engine - 1712

Thomas Savery had joined forces with Thomas Newcomen and created an engine that pumps atmospheric steam.

James Watt’s steam engine – 1765

James Watt's steam engine - 1765

Scottish inventor James Watt develops the Newcomen engine by adding a condenser and develops a motor that turns an axle instead of pumping.

The first steam car – 1769 – 70

First steam car - 1769 - 70
Nicolas Joseph Cugnot – French inventor

In France, Nicholas Cugnot invents a steam-powered road vehicle by converting steam into piston movement and spinning motion.

Trevithick’s steam engine – 1801-04

Trevithick's steam engine - 1801-04
Road Locomotive

English Richard Trevithick develops a smaller, lighter steam engine and places this device on the wheel, creating a “road locomotive”. It was the world’s first locomotive.

The first steamship – 1802-07

Steam ship - 1802-07
Steamboat – Robert Fulton

In the USA, Robert Fulton managed to apply steam power technology to the cruise ship (first steam-powered vessel) and the ship succeeded in fighting against the currents.

The first ship to cross the Atlantic – 1819

Crossing the Atlantic for the first time - 1819
Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean

US ship Savannah is the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean using steam power as well as sails. The Age of Sail will soon be over.

Stephenson’s Rocket – 1829

Stephenson's Rocket - 1829
Stephenson’s Rocket

English engineer Robert Stephenson applies steam power to locomotives and his “Rocket” becomes a commercial success.

Water tube steam boiler – 1867

Water tube steam boiler - 1867

George Babcock and Stephen Wilcox discovered the water tube steam boiler in the US where water flows through the pipes. The device was used in 1882 to generate electricity.

The first steam turbine – 1884 – 97

Steam turbine - 1884 - 97
Titanic, operating with Parson’s solution

Sir Charles Algernon Parsons develops a steam turbine generator that produces a huge amount of electricity. The generator is used to power large ships such as Titanic.

Geothermal power – early 20th century

Geothermal power - early 20th century
Geothermal power plant

In Lardarello, Italy, scientists discovered “geothermal” or “dry steam” energy and build the first such energy station in 1911.

Steam turbines and nuclear energy – 20th century

The water boiled by the controlled nuclear chain reactions in the reactors produces steam, which is used to activate the steam turbines to generate electricity.

The history of steam energy consisted of these mechanisms. The development process of steam power has generally started in UK countries.