Skip to main content
No. 28:
First American Steam Engine

Today we visit the first American steam engine. 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.

The intelligentsia of 18th-century America were quite interested in the technological revolution that was then sweeping England. In 1760 the young John Adams wrote in his diary that he was struggling to understand the English "fire engines," as steam engines were then called. But the historian Carroll Pursell points out that our interest in steam engines was largely academic, because the real thing simply wasn't to be found in the colonies.

The early 18th-century use of steam engines in England was pretty well limited to keeping water out of the relatively deep British coal and metal mines. On this side of the Atlantic we made do for some time with surface deposits of coal and iron, so there was no great need for pumping engines. But a problem arose when we went after copper and other scarcer metals, because they lay deeper in the earth.

In particular, Colonel John Schuyler's copper mine near Passaic, New Jersey, was closed down by flooding in 1748. So Schuyler sent the English engine-maker Jonathan Hornblower 1000 pounds to ship him a "fire engine" accompanied by workmen to help set it up. The engine arrived five years later, in 1753, along with Hornblower's son, Josiah, and several mechanics.

When Josiah got the machine into operation almost two years later, Schuyler hired him to run the engine and the mine as well. It ran well enough for five years until it was badly damaged in a fire. Josiah got it back into operation again, but only until another fire ruined it in 1768. This time it stayed ruined until after the Revolutionary War. Josiah Hornblower made another repair in 1793, and this time the old relic kept pumping well into the 19th century.

But America wasn't built on off-the-shelf English engines. We were starting to build our own engines by time of the Revolutionary War. Before Hornblower repaired Schuyler's engine the second time, it had been surpassed not only by better English engines but by early American designs as well. It was, by then, something of an antiquarian tourist attraction.

The real value of Schuyler's tenacity was that it pointed the way to others. Colonial intellectuals and writers visited the mine -- Ben Franklin stopped by to see. What was an intellectual exercise for John Adams was made real for us by Schuyler.

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 of 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.

See Episode 1085 for a revised and updated version of this episode.