Skip to main content
No. 1085:
The First American Steam Engine

Today, steam comes to America. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Eighteenth-century scholars talked about technology in a way that 20th-century scholars do not. Technology was part of the natural philosophy curriculum in any good university.

American intellectuals had a strong interest in the technological revolution sweeping England by the mid-1700s. In 1760 young John Adams wrote in his diary that he was struggling to understand the English "fire engines." That's what steam engines were called back before Watt. Jefferson studied them at William and Mary.

Still, historian Carroll Pursell points out that our interest in steam engines had to be largely academic. The real thing simply didn't exist in the Colonies.

The first Newcomen engines were huge brutes -- two stories high. They delivered around ten horsepower. Their first use was keeping water out of British coal and metal mines.

Here in America, we used up surface deposits of coal and iron before we began digging deep mines. At first we had no need for pumping engines. But surface deposits ran out. And scarcer metals, like copper, couldn't be found on the surface.

In 1748 John Schuyler's copper mine near Passaic, New Jersey, was shut down by flooding. So Schuyler paid the English engine-maker Jonathan Hornblower 1000 pounds to ship him a "fire engine" and a crew of mechanics to set it up. The engine arrived five years later, in 1753, along with Hornblower's son, Josiah, and his crew.

When Josiah got the machine up and running two years after that, Schuyler hired him to run the engine and the mine as well. The engine did well enough for five years. Then it was badly damaged in a fire. Josiah got it running again, but only 'til another fire ruined it in 1768. This time it stayed ruined through the American Revolution. An aging Josiah Hornblower made another repair in 1793, and this time the old engine kept pumping well into the 19th century.

Still, America couldn't be built with off-the-shelf English technology. We were starting to build our own engines even before the Revolutionary War. Before Hornblower repaired Schuyler's engine the second time, it'd been surpassed, not only by better English engines, but by early American designs as well. By 1793 it was already something of an antiquarian tourist attraction.

The real value of Schuyler's tenacity was that it pointed the way to others. Colonial intellectuals, like Ben Franklin, went to see it. Steam power had been a school exercise for Jefferson and Adams. It took Schuyler's checkered business venture to turn that dinosaur of an engine into a glimpse of -- America's future.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Pursell, C.W., Jr., Early Stationary Steam Engines in America: A Study in the Migration of a Technology. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969, Chapter 1, The Colonial Experience.

Note: 11/19/2011: Mr. Al Jarvis writes to point out that the actual location of Schuyler's mine is in North Arlington, NJ, five miles south of Passaic.

This episode is a revised version of Episode 28.