Understanding the Revolution that Was the Steam Engine

By Phineas Upham

More than 2,000 years ago, humans discovered that we could generate power to move a device if we were able to boil water at a high enough volume. In 1606, Jeronimo de Ayanz y Beaumont obtained the world’s first patent to create a steam engine, but these early attempts were not very practical. The world would need to wait almost 100 years for the first commercially viable steam engine.

It’s hard to understate the importance of steam power to the world at large. Steam is still in use today, so it’s been seen as a viable energy source for a long time.

The trouble wasn’t creating the motion. The first steam engines often relied on sophisticated systems of pumps and vacuums, which funneled water in to produce steam that ran the pumps to start the cycle. These self-serving devices were wonderful proof of the concept of steam power, but it was a far cry from the engines that would later power looms.

Thomas Newcomen discovered how to condense steam through a cylinder, generating 5 horsepower. His design was the first time we’d discovered mechanized work. It was the start to where we are today: where entire factories are automated by machinery managed by computers.

Steam engines powered pumping stations, assisted in every facet of mining (which was the backbone of the American economy throughout the 17 and 1800s), and it was crucial to agriculture at scale. Without steam power, farming would not have been able to support the volume of people it does today.

About the Author: Phineas Upham is an investor at a family office/ hedgefund, where he focuses on special situation illiquid investing. Before this position, Phin Upham was working at Morgan Stanley in the Media and Telecom group. You may contact Phin on his Phineas Upham website or LinkedIn page.