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Some Early Heat Engine Concepts and the Conservation of Heat

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009

A. J. Pacey
24 Chamber Road, Shaw, Oldham OL2 7AR.


For the historian of thermodynamics, the outstanding events of the eighteenth century were the invention of the Newcomen atmospheric steam engine (1712), the patent of James Watt for a condenser separate from the engine's cylinder (1769), and Watt's further patent for the expansive use of steam (1782). These inventions, along with others concerned with hydraulic machinery, provided Sadi Carnot with the foundation on which he built, in 1824, the first fully general concept of a heat engine.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 1974

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Lee's table came to my notice during a visit to Birmingham Reference Library in the company of Mr Stuart B. Smith, and it is he who is mainly responsible for bringing this material to light. I am indebted to Dr Robert Fox for reading an earlier version of this paper. Much of its content was also discussed with Dr D. S. L. Cardwell when he was preparing his book From Watt to Clausius, and I am grateful to him for suggesting publication in the present form.

1 A full account of all these developments is given in Cardwell, D. S. L., From Watt to Clausius. The rise of thermodynamics in the early industrial age (London, 1971).Google Scholar

2 Ibid., pp. 18–20, 25.

3 The best readily accessible account of the experiments of Huygens and Papin is given in Klemm, Friedrich, A history of western technology, trans. Singer, Dorothea Waley (London, 1959), pp. 212–27.Google Scholar

4 Talbot, G. R. and Pacey, A. J., ‘Antecedents of thermodynamics in the work of Guillaume Amontons’, Centaurus, xvi (1971), 2040Google Scholar; Pacey, A. J. and Fisher, S. J., ‘Daniel Bernoulli and the vis viva of compressed air’, The British journal for the history of science, iii (19661967), 388–92.Google Scholar

5 Pacey, and Fisher, , op. cit. (4), pp. 391–2.Google Scholar

6 A very early indicator diagram is illustrated in Hills, R. L. and Pacey, A. J., ‘The measurement of power in early steam-driven textile mills’, Technology and culture, xiii (1972), p. 41.Google Scholar

7 Cardwell, , op. cit. (1), p. 50.Google Scholar

8 The main sources for the study of Smeaton's work on this subject are the article ‘Steam-engine’ in Rees, Abraham, Cyclopedia (39 vols., London, 1819), xxviGoogle Scholar; and Farey, John, Treatise on the steam engine (London, 1827), pp. 167–86, etc.Google Scholar

9 This table and all the figures quoted from Smeaton's work are from the article ‘Steam-engine’ in Rees's Cyclopedia; see also Farey, John, op. cit. (8), p. 186.Google Scholar

10 Report on the Kinnaird engine, in Reports of the late John Smeaton (2nd edn., 2 vols., London, 1837), ii. 6970.Google Scholar

11 See Cardwell, op. cit. (1); also Cardwell, D. S. L., Steam power in the eighteenth century (London, 1963).Google Scholar

12 Cardwell, , op. cit. (1), p. 89Google Scholar, quoting A. J. Pacey.

13 More details of the engine and the experiments are given by Hills, and Pacey, , op. cit. (6), pp. 3443.Google Scholar

14 For a summary of Lee's scientific interests, see Musson, A. E. and Robinson, Eric, Science and technology in the industrial revolution (Manchester, 1969), pp. 99100.Google Scholar

15 ‘Lee's experiments with indicator’, MS. in Box 26, Boulton and Watt Collection, Birmingham Reference Library.

16 Ibid. These phrases appear in column headings in the table; Lee's abbreviations are here expanded.

17 For the definition of ‘total heat’, see Cardwell, , op. cit. (1), pp. 52–4.Google Scholar

18 ‘Lee's experiments with indicator’, op. cit. (15); uncorrected and corrected values are recorded in separate columns.

19 For Kelvin's scale of temperature, see Cardwell, , op. cit. (1), pp. 239–40.Google Scholar

20 ‘Lee's experiments with indicator’, op. cit. (15). The formula is written in pencil at the side of the table. It is expressed in terms of column numbers on the table, and says that U(T-1To) should be multiplied by the inverse ratio ‘of the sum in Column 30—the sum in Col. 21 X by Col. 29 to ye same sums.’ Column 29 contains figures for the volume of water, U. Column 30 has figures for 1100 U, and column 21 contains the readings of T1. So the ratio referred to is (1100 U—TixU): (1100U), and the inverse ratio reduces to 1100/(1100–T1).

21 These figures refer to the same experiments as those in Table 2, but are taken from different columns in the table.

22 The dimensions are to be found in ‘James Watt & Co, Soho, Boulton & Watt catalogue of Old Engines’, pp. 1416, 74–7, 90–5, etc.Google Scholar, Birmingham Reference Library. See also Hills, and Pacey, , op. cit. (6), p. 38.Google Scholar

23 Letters in the Boulton and Watt Collection, Birmingham Reference Library, as follows: Lee, to Lawson, , 14 05 1795Google Scholar; Ewart, to Watt, junior, 2 08 1795Google Scholar; Lee, to Watt, junior, 15 12 1795Google Scholar; Lee, to Boulton, , 22 01 1795.Google Scholar

24 Letter from Lee, to Lawson, , 14 05 1795, loc. cit. (23).Google Scholar

25 Hills, and Pacey, , op. cit. (6), pp. 38–9.Google Scholar

26 Smeaton, loc. cit. (10).

27 Wollaston, W. H., ‘On the force of percussion’, Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society, (1806), p. 13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

28 Gregory, Olinthus, A treatise of mechanics (2 vols. and plates, London, 1806), pp. 5261.Google Scholar

29 Edinburgh review, xii (1808), 120.Google Scholar

30 Ewart, Peter, Memoirs of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 2nd ser., ii (1812), 108.Google Scholar

31 de Prony, Riche, Nouvelle architecture hydraulique, part I (Paris, 1790), pp. 554–62Google Scholar, on steam; part II (Paris, 1796) deals with steam engines.

32 Letter from Lee, to Lawson, , 5 03 1798Google Scholar, Boulton and Watt Collection, Birmingham Reference Library.