Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729)

Thomas Newcomen invented the world’s first successful atmospheric steam engine and is regarded as one of the forefathers of the Industrial Revolution. He was born in Dartmouth, Devon and became an ironmonger, working closely with a number of owners of tin mines in Cornwall. The mines flooded regularly - a problem that was becoming worse as mines were made deeper - and removing the water manually or with pumps was slow, expensive and inefficient.

Newcomen designed an innovative engine for pumping water from the mines. His engine derived its power from the pressure of the atmosphere rather than from high steam pressure. It was first operated at a south Staffordshire colliery in 1712, and within a few years it was being used in almost every mining area in Britain and the rest of Europe.

Although a number of notable engineers made improvements to Newcomen’s engines, his design was so practical and efficient that machines of this type were still in use in the early 20th century. However, despite the success of his invention, Newcomen never made much money and never became a household name.

Relatively little is known of Newcomen’s later life. He is buried in north London.