Sometimes it is argued that Savor's fire engine is not a real engine as it lacks moving parts. Todays dictionaries define an engine as a machine that changes energy (such as heat from burning fuel) into mechanical motion [1]. Or a little bit more generous as as a machine for converting any of various forms of energy into mechanical force and motion [2]. Savery's engine produces a pressure force, and yes it moves water from a lower level in a gravity field to a higher level. But people applying this definition have in mind that mechanical parts of the engine have to be in motion. Anyway, these arguments arise because the meaning of the word engine in the English language has changed over the centuries. 

The original, abstract meaning of engine in English was ‘ingenuity, artfulness; cunning, trickery’. From this sense, it was only a short step to applying engine to the products of such ingenuity. This could be something abstract, more frequently, however, engine referred to a physical product of skill or ingenuity—to tools, implements, or devices. [3]

Thomas Savery was born at Shilston, near Modbury, in Devon, about the year 1650. Nothing is known of his early life, beyond that he was educated to the profession of a military engineer. He was obviously interested in all kinds of mechanics. His first patents were granted for a device for polishing plate-glass and a paddle rowing boat. [2]

Savery's fire engine

Thomas Savery patent N° 356 of A.D: 1698: Method of Raising Water, giving motion to Mills, Draining Mines, etc.

In 1698 Thomas Savery was granted patent N° 356 for a "Machinery for Raising Water, giving Motion to Mills, &c. The patent sets out on 3 1/2 pages that the patent is granted for "A new machinery for raising water and occasioning motion to all sorts of mill work by the impellent force of fire, which will be great use and advantage for draining mines, serving towns with water, and for the working of all sorts of mills where they have not the benefit of water nor constant winds". Apart from this, no technical detail's are given or to what extent the patent is limited. The rest of the document states, in a way that today seems long-winded

  • who can benefit from the patent (Thomas Savery, his executors, administrators, and assigns, especial lycence),
  • what rights the patent confers (erect, use, teach, exercise, and put into practice),
  • the term (14 years),
  • the local validity (Kingdom of England, Dominion of Wales, and Town Berwick-upon-Tweed)
  • who (all persons, bodys politick and corporate, of what quality, degree, name or condition soever they be) is not allowed to do (use, exercise, put into practice, counterfeite, imitate, resemble the new invention or any material thereunto belonging, nor make any addition or or subtraction there from whereby to present themselves the inventors or devisors thereof, and
  • which authorities (singular justice of peace, mayors, sheriffs, bailiffs, constables, headboroughs and all other officers and ministers whatsoever of the King, his heirs and successors) have to support Thomas Savery to go after the offenders.  

Most of these statements are today explicitly stated in our patent laws and therefore are no long mentioned in the patent document itself.

The Savery engine was said to have had a bad efficiency. It did not matter that much when a Savery engine was installed in a coal mines, as it could be fed with coal of inferior quality. But when it was operated in for example tin and copper mines, which were far away from coal mines, the transport costs for the coal made the running costs so high, that horses turning the pumps were cheaper. 


[1] The Britannica dictionary

[2] Merriam_Webster

[3] Oxford English Dictionary

[5] 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