Thomas Savery eText - Primary Source

Primary Source

Excerpt from The Miner's Friend; or,
An Engine to Raise Water by Fire

Published in 1702

"Then I say, such an engine may be made large enough to do the work required in employing eight, ten, fifteen, or twenty horses."

Around the year 1700, owners of British coal mines faced a problem common to mines of all types: how to get rid of the water that constantly seeped into the mine and threatened to flood the deep pits. The existing system, using horses and pulleys to lift buckets filled with water, was expensive and slow. As mines were dug deeper, the bucket system could not keep pace. The challenge of keeping mines dry provided the motivation for development of the steam engine, one of the first steps in a long process of introducing mechanical power alongside human and animal muscles to drive machines—a process called the Industrial Revolution.

Removing water from mines had been a problem for several decades when a British military engineer named Thomas Savery (c. 1650–1715) had an idea he called "an engine to raise [pump out] water by fire." Savery's invention was the first practicable steam engine, using the characteristics of steam to accomplish a task (in his case, to pump water).

Savery's invention started with a boiler (like a huge pot) sitting over burning coal. The fire boiled the water, creating steam. Two pipes led from the boiler to cylindrical containers (called receivers). A valve (faucet) was opened on one of these pipes to fill a receiver with steam. As soon as it was full of steam, the valve was closed and cold water was thrown onto the receiver, causing the steam to condense. The condensation of the steam created a vacuum in the receiver, which then sucked water up through a second pipe that connected the receiver with the underground water (at the bottom of the mine, for example). As soon as the first receiver was filled with water, the faucet from the boiler was opened again, and the incoming steam pushed the water out of the receiver through a third pipe. The two receivers alternated in being filled with steam, sucking water from below, and being emptied by the incoming steam. The receivers, in effect, took turns sucking water up from a lower level and expelling it when steam was again let in.

In 1698 Savery demonstrated a working model of his invention for the English king, William III, and was granted a patent. (A patent is a government license granting the exclusive use of an idea for several years, so inventors can earn money from their ideas.) The patent was a broad one, giving Savery the exclusive right to the:

exercise of a new invention by him invented, for raising of water, and occasioning motion to all sorts of mill works, by the important force of fire, which will be of great use for draining mines, serving towns with water, and for the working of all sorts of mills, when they have not the benefit of water nor constant winds; to hold for 14 years; with usual clauses.

Although Savery's engine was able to raise water, it proved impractical for use in coal mines. The vacuum it created was not strong enough to suck water from the bottom of the deepest mines. Another disadvantage was that the design of Savery's engine required two boilers in order to keep it pumping, which in turn made the "fire engine" too large to fit inside deep mines.

Another English inventor, Thomas Newcomen (1663–1729), developed a more effective steam engine in 1712, and still later, a third inventor, James Watt (1736–1819), improved on Newcomen's invention. Watt's steam engine was the first that came into widespread use outside of mines. Both Newcomen and Watt used the expansive quality of steam to push a piston (a solid cylindrical piece of metal that slides inside a hollow cylinder) back and forth (or up and down), creating mechanical motion to pump water, or to drive wheels by means of a solid rod connected to one end of the moving piston.

The distinguishing characteristic of Thomas Savery was what he did with his invention. Having obtained his patent, he then set about persuading coal mine owners to use his invention. He published a book titled The Miner's Friend; or, An Engione to Raise Water by Fire in 1702 in which he laid out the possible uses of his invention and answered possible objections. In one sense, Thomas Savery was as much a salesman as an inventor, demonstrating a principle that was repeated over and over during the course of the Industrial Revolution: The original inventors were not always the ones who made fortunes. Those inventors who achieved fame and fortune found ways to sell their inventions.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Miner's Friend:

  • In the excerpt given here from The Miner's Friend, Thomas Savery lays out the possibility of using his "Fire Engine to create a circular motion to drive a mill, like a waterwheel pushed by a moving stream was used to grind wheat into flour." This application was not used until James Watt developed an improved version of the steam engine about sixty years later, but Savery evidently had a vision of the future possibilities that came to include the railroad locomotive and steam ship.
  • Savery was writing about a century before common spelling was adapted in the English language. Some of his language and original spelling looks odd to readers, two hundred years later.

Excerpt from The Miner's Friend, "Of the Uses That This Engine May Be Applied Unto"

It may be supposed that there are few People among us so ignorant, but must necessarily know of what value the Falls of Water are in most Places, as being applicable to mills; which are made after various kinds and forms, according to the different genius and abilities of the mill right; for mill work being in manner infinitely diversified; and had I leisure to comment there on, and give you an account, not only of the vast variety that I have seen and heard of; but (when encouraged) what may yet brought to work by steady stream, and the rotation or circular motion of a water-wheel, it would swell these papers to a much larger volume than was at first designed, and frustrate my intended brevity. I only just hint this to show what use this Engine may be put to in working of mills, especially where coals are cheap.

I have only this to urge, that water in its fall from any determinate height, has simply a force answerable and equal to the force that raises it. So that an engine which will raise as much water as two horses, working together at one time in such a work, can do, and for which there must be constantly kept ten or twelve horses for doing the same [to give the horses turns at resting]. Then I say, such an engine may be made large enough to do the work required in employing eight, ten, fifteen, or twenty horses to be constantly maintained and kept for doing such a work; it will be improper to stint or confine its uses and operation in reflect of water-mills.

It may be of great use for palaces, for the nobilities or gentlemens houses. For by a cistern on the top of a house, you may with a great deal of ease and little charge, throw what quantity of water you have occasion for to the top of any house; which water in its fall, makes you what forts of fountains you please and supply any room in the house. And it is of excellent use in case of fire, of which more hereafter.

Nothing can be more fit for serving cities, and towns with water, except a crank-work by the force of a river. In the composing such sort of engines, I think no person hath excelled the Mr. George Sorocold. But where they are forced to use horses, or any other strength, I believe no ingenious person will deny this engine to have the preference in all respects, being of more universal use than any yet discovered or invented.

As for draining fens and marshes, &c. I suppose I need say no more than this, that that force which will raise great quantities of water a height of above 80 foot, must necessarily deliver a much greater quantity at a lesser height. And that it is much cheaper, and every way easier, especially where coals are water borne, to continue the discharge of any quantities of water by our engine, than it can be done by any horse engines what so ever.

I believe it may be made very useful to ships, but I dare not meddle with that matter; and leave it to the judgment of those who are the best judges of maritain affairs.

For draining of mines and coal pits, the use of the engine will sufficiently recommend it self, in raising water so easier and cheap; and I do not doubt, but that in a few year, it will be a means of making our mining trade, which is no small part of the wealth of this kingdom, double, if not triple to what it now is. And if such vast quantities of lead, tin, and coals are now yearly exported, under the difficulties of such an immense charge and pains as the miners, &c. are now at to discharge their water, how much more may be hereafter exported, when the charge will be very much lessened by the use of this engine, every way fitted for the use of mines? For the far greater part of our richest mines and coal-pits, are liable to two grand inconveniences, and thereby rendered useless; viz. The eruption and excels of subterraneous waters, as not being worth the expense of draining them by the great charge of horses or hand labor. Or secondly, fatal damps, by which many are struck blind, lame, or dead in these subterraneous cavities, if the mine is wanting of a due circulation of air. Now both these incoveniencies are naturally remedied by the work of this engine of raising water by the impellant force of FIRE.

For the water. Be the mine never so deep, each engine working it 60, 70, or 80 foot high by applying or setting the engines one over another, as shall be showed at large hereafter in the following pages, you may by a sufficient number of engines keep the bottom of any mine dry; and when once you know how large your feeder or spring is, it is very easy to know what sized engine, or what number of engines will do your business.

The coals used in this engine is of as little value, as the coals commonly burned on the mouths of the coal-pits are: for an engine of a three-inch-bore, or there about, working the water up 60 foot high, requires a fire-place of not above twenty inches deep and about fourteen or fifteen inches wide, which will occasion so small a consumption, that in a coal-pit it is of no account, as we have experienced. And in all parts of England where there are mines; coals are so cheap, that the charge of them is not to be mentioned when we consider the vast quantity of water raised by the inconsiderable value of the coals used and burnt in so small a furnace. What the quantity of coals used for one engine in a year is, cannot easily be ascertained, because of the different nature of the several sorts of coals.

As for the cure of damps by this engine, the air perpetuallycrowding into the ash-hole and fire-place, as it is natural for it to do, and with a most impetuous force discharge with the smoke at the top of the chimney, the contiguous air is successively following it; so that not only all steams or vapors whatsoever, that may or can arise, must naturally force its way through the fire and so be discharged at the top with the smoke. But this motion of the fire will occasion the fresh Air to descend from above, down all the pits, and every where else in the mine, but down the chimney; provided you have a heading drift, or passage from all the shafts, or pits in the same work it matters not; for here will be a perpetual circulation of air, and with that swiftness, as is hardly to be believed. This I have tried, and know to be true; so leave the ingenious miner to his own judgment. Whether when all the air is in a swift motion, that any stagnation of air (which has always been adjudged the cause of damps) can happen in any pit.

What happened next …

A few years after Savery received his patent, a humble iron worker named Thomas Newcomen, who lived just fifteen miles away from Savery, proposed a slightly different approach. Newcomen created a vacuum quickly by shooting a jet of cold water into the steam chamber (the collector, in Savery's terms), causing the steam to condense very quickly and make a more effective suction. Newcomen's approach was much closer to modern engines—for one thing, it could repeat the process more quickly than Savery's engine—and might rightly be considered the first modern steam engine.

There is some evidence suggesting that Newcomen was acquainted with Thomas Savery (Newcomen may even have done iron work for Savery), and that the two men may have collaborated on Newcomen's improved model.

James Watt developed an improved version of Newcomen's engine after being asked to repair a model. Later, Watt went into partnership with Matthew Boulton (1728–1809), a successful businessman. Together, Watt and Boulton began manufacturing steam engines under a patent that gave them a market monopoly (exclusive control). Although Watt is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the inventor of the steam engine (his role was to improve on Newcomen's model), it was really his commercial success that gave him a place in the history of the Industrial Revolution.

Most historians date the start of the Industrial Revolution to around 1750, with the introduction of Watt's successful steam engine. But the steam engine did not begin—or end—with James Watt. It already had a history before Watt was even born.

Did you know …

The term horsepower was first used by Thomas Savery to describe the power of his steam engine, calculating the number of horses his machine could replace in pulling water up from the bottom of a mine.

For more information


Carnegie, Andrew. James Watt. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1933.

Dickinson, H. W. A Short History of the Steam Engine. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1965.

Hills, Richard L. Power from Steam: A History of the Stationary Steam Engine. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Web Sites

Carnegie, Andrew. "James Watt." University of Rochester: Steam Engine Library. (accessed on April 10, 2003).

Savery, Thomas. The Miner's Friend; or, An Engine to Raise Water by Fire. 1702. Available at University of Rochester: Steam Engine Library. (accessed on April 10, 2003).