The entry under Aeolipile in volume one of this work states "The cut is copied from Hero’s “Spiritalia”, edited by Woodcroft, of London." Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons"

The principle to use the expanding force of steam can be traced back to the Greek mathematician and engineer Heron of Alexandria, who lived in the first century CE. In his book "Pneumatica" he describes a hollow sphere mounted so that it could turn on a pair of hollow tubes that provided steam to the sphere from a cauldron.  The aeolipile , or water ball, as he called this contrivance, was to our knowledge the first steam turbine. "As Hero’s book professes to be, for the most part, but a collection of the devices handed down by former writers, and as he does not lay claim to its invention, it is probable the Æolipile may have been known long before his time" [1].

However, it did not propel any machine and therefore had no practical use. It is arguable that the metallurgical capacities at the time were just enough to produce a showpiece but did not allow, to construct something to release more power. Between Heron and the beginning of the "steam age" several proposals of devices powered by expanding gases, including the use of gun powder, are known, but no such device seems to have progressed beyond a working prototype at best. 



Savery's fire engines combined with a water wheel

Savery engine supplying a water wheel to generate rotary motion. Source: John Farey, A treatise on the steam engine, 1827.

Thomas Savery's title of his patent claims the use of his invention for giving motion to mills, without explaining how he would  achieve this. Since then several engines weere erected that used Savery's fire engine to pump water into  a receiver and then release it onto a water wheel.

A Mr. Joshua Rigley erected at Manchester and in other parts of Lancashire engines which usually raised water about 16 to 20 feet high with a Savery fire engine. Probably the erection costs of a Savery engine, by which time the patent had lapsed, was less than a Newcomen machine, or even a Watt condenser machine. The water descending again, gave motion to an overshot water-wheel. In contrast to Savery Mr. Rigley contrived his engines to work without an attendant; the motion of the water-wheel being made to open and shut the regulator, and injection-cock, at the proper intervals. They continued in use for some years, but were at length given up in favor of better engines. [20]

The drawing on the rights shows a machine erected at the manufacture of Mr. Kier  in St. Pancras, London. The machine was said to have worked there for many years to turn lathes, &c. . The motion of the water-wheel is regulated by an apparatus called a governor, invented by Mr. Watt, So we know that this machine must have been erected after xxxx, a long time after the Savery patent had elapsed.

Mr. Kier thought it a profitable engine to himself, and that it would be serviceable for raising water, where coals are cheap. It was stated to consume six bushels of good coals, in twelve hours' work, when in its best state, or seven bushels when at the worst. Under these circumstances it was said to make ten strokes per minute, each throwing out seven cubic feet of water at an aperture 20 feet above the water beneath. This is at the rate of 7O cubic feet per minute raised 20 feet = 1400 cubic feet raised 1 foot, and divided by 528 cubic feet, or one horse power, it gives 2 2/3 horse power, for the power of this engine ; but its consumption of coals was probably much greater than above stated, at least when working regularly with the 2 2/3horse power. [21]


[1] Samuel Smiles, "Lives of Boulton and Watt", London, John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1865, chapter 1. This book is made publicly available by the Gutenberg Project

[2] Ibid

[10] John, Farey, A treatise on the steam engine : historical, practical, and descriptive, London 1827 available INTERNET ARCHIVE

[20] Ibid, page 122

[21] Ibid, page 125