17 thoughts on “The Steam Engine”

  1. Metallurgy and a supply of machinists / machine tools to the necessary tolerances. There were a *lot* of burst steam boilers in the first few decades. …and they cost a lot of money.

  2. I’m reminded of the story behind Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine. In this alternative history novel, Charles Babbage successfully completes his Analytical Engine sometime in the mid to late 1830s. Effectively developing the digital computer (as a mechanical computer powered by steam) 100 years before it actually came to fruition. The British immediately put it to work on competitive economic models that allow the British Empire to maintain its hegemony in the world with its main rival being France.

    There all are sorts of steam-punk derived gadgets in this alternate universe, many having to do with using miniature rod-like devices to generate slow-frame ‘video’ (maybe pixellation would be a better term), and others to scan would-be metal debit cards.

    The world proceeds apace with tech 100 years advanced from our current timeline and with somewhat of a Utopian prospective posits that machine intelligence becomes self-aware around 1991 (just a year after this book is published).

    The only item I would take some exception to is idea that the Foreign Ministry, home to the largest collection of Analytical Engines is constantly under bombardment from pigeons perched on all the telegraph wires coming from the building. It would have become quickly apparent, even in 1855, that the multiplicity of wires would have to be dealt with. Time division multiplexing would have easily been within the reach of 19th century technology and would have certainly been employed in this scenario.

    1. The British immediately put it to work on competitive economic models

      How could that be expected to come out better than current OTL economic modeling?

    2. I remember being annoyed by the ending because I thought it did not follow from the narrative. Yet I do remember the ending, so perhaps the authors are having the last laugh.

  3. I read something about machining tolerances a while back. A good fit of a piston in a bore was only a 0.1 inch gap on the early steam engines.

    1. Compare modern car engines to even WWII era engines…

      The Ford MB Jeep had a 4-cylinder, engine of around 2.2 Liters. It produced, all out, 60 hp and leaks oil constantly (when it stops leaking, you’re out of oil)

      A modern Toyota 2.2 produces more than twice that much power (129 HP) and is a 4-cylinder engine. And is a HELL of a lot more reliable than the Ford Jeep, and doesn’t leak oil hardly at all,

      1. My older brother told me about his shovelehead engined Harley-Davidson — it needed a drip pan to catch all the oil it leaked overnight. The original F-111s leaked hydraulic fluid but that actually was intentiona/em> or so I was told) odd as that may seem now…

      2. The engine in my wife’s Honda CR/V is a 1.5 liter turbocharged 4 cylinder that produces 180 HP.

      3. My last Toyota had a 2.0l engine, normally aspirated, and it produced 200hp. It was all at the top end, so you had to really rev the thing, but there you go. And it was solid, reliable, etc.
        Proving your point a little more, I suppose. Modern engines really are quite remarkable.

  4. Future historians will likewise ask: “Why weren’t rockets that could land invented sooner? Who in their right mind would throw away such an expensive piece of equipment into the ocean after one use?”

    I think that while people in the past weren’t stupid, they couldn’t see the bigger picture, and see long term benefits of new technologies.

  5. “Why weren’t rockets that could land invented sooner? Who in their right mind would throw away such an expensive piece of equipment into the ocean after one use?”
    Easy. You don’t want missiles to come back. Although there were first stages for air to air missiles that did return. Manned, air breathing, winged, recoverable on runways. See F-106, English Electric Lightning etc.

  6. The first steam engines were very large, bore and stroke five feet or more and very inefficient. This was because they operated at atmospheric pressure as has been said. This didn’t matter much for a coal mine, plenty of fuel and room.

    Before they could be used for something like a boat or locomotive, both problems had to be solved. The solution was obvious from the start, raise the pressure. The state of both metallurgy, manufacturing and knowledge of strength of materials made this unconscionably dangerous. Many boilers exploded and many people died very painfully. Watt, himself, condemned high pressure boilers, then around 15 PSI, as unsafe.

    It wasn’t until well into the 19th century that relationships between load and strength were established and structures could start to be designed rationally instead by rules of thumb and often erroneous notions of how materials reacted to stress. It wasn’t until about 1850 that steel became available in appreciable quantities.

    It’s much the way that airplanes didn’t become practical until decent engines were developed.

    1. The Wright Brothers had to design and build their own engine – but once they proved heavier than air flight was possible, there were LOTS of people building engines, on both sides of the Atlantic.

      Hence, technology is invented when it is needed….

      1. The Wights had a serious “not invented here” problem. When Glenn Curtis first approached them, he was racing motor cycles and had experience with compact, relatively high performance engines which he saw as a natural fit. The Wrights told him to get lost, the rest is history. There’s a reason the company ended up as Curtis-Wright and not Wright-Curtis.

        Wilbur’s wing warping for roll control was ingenious but a dead end that would never have scaled to larger, stronger and more powerful aircraft. Curtis’s ailerons obviously did.

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