THE First Age of Fire began before the days of Tubal-cain, the metal worker. It goes back, back, back into the farthest reaches of man’s history. The Second Age of Fire began less than two hundred and fifty years ago.

In the First Age of Fire man valued fire for the heat and light it gave. We value and use it for heat and light to-day. In the uses which we make of fire in our homes we are still living in the First Age. We cook by fire; we heat our houses by it. But the First Age has broadened into a Second Age as a tiny stream broadens into a wide river.

Man has always wanted power. At first he had only the power of his own muscles. Then he began to make the simplest kind of machines. In the water wheel and the windmill he gained power from the rush of falling water and the blowing of the wind. But up to 1700 A.D. and the years immediately following, the work of his world had to be done chiefly by his own muscular strength and the strength of the animals which he harnessed to work for him. It is interesting to notice that we still figure the output of our engines in terms of "horse power"; we are not far from the age when the animal was the great source of power and the work which an animal could do was the standard unit of measure.

The Second Age of Fire began when man learned to use the energy given off in the burning of fuel for power to run his machines. The steam engine was the first machine in which fuel was used for power. When fire in the natural process of burning up fuel could be harnessed to turn the wheels of the world, the age of machinery could begin. The Second Age of Fire is the age of machinery, the age in which fuel is used for power.


A boy of twelve sat before the fire in a simple Scotch home with his aunt, Mrs. Muirhead. He was a delicate lad, not strong enough to go to school, who had all his lessons at home with his father and mother. An idle lad the neighbors had called him when he did not go to school and did not seem to be doing any work; but even as a six-year-old his mind was running far ahead of his body. "Why do you let that boy waste his time so?" a neighbor said to Mr. Watt, when he called one day and found the child stretched out on the floor and drawing lines upon it with chalk. "Why don’t you send him to school where he will learn something useful?" "Look more closely," replied Mr. Watt quietly, "and you may find, sir, that you are mistaken. Examine for yourself and see what my son is about." The neighbor found that the six-year-old was doing a problem in geometry, with the floor for his blackboard.

It was the same feeling of exasperation which drove his aunt to sharp speech as they sat together before the fire a few years later.

"James Watt," she said, "I never saw such an idle boy. Take a book and employ yourself usefully. For the last hour you have not spoken one word, but have just taken the lid off that kettle and put it on again, or held a cup or a spoon over the steam at the spout. Aren’t you ashamed of spending your time that way?"

It is a homely story, with a sound of truth in it. What practical aunt would fail to grow impatient with a lad who played with the steam from a teakettle? Yet the moment when the interest of young James Watt turned to steam was a moment which was to be remembered by mankind for many, many years after the great inventor had done his work, for before he was thirty-five years old he had made over the clumsy and incomplete steam engine of his day into a practicable steam engine which was capable of doing the work of the world. The discovery and use of fire lifted man above the animals and introduced him to the heritage by which he could conquer the world. The effective use of fuel for power, as it was managed in the steam engine, released him from the toil of a slave and set him on the way to being in very truth a conqueror. The change in the world brought about by the steam engine and its successors makes everything which we can know of James Watt of especial interest to us who live in the modern age of machinery.

Inventors are likely, or were likely in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to have such a hard time in their youth that it is pleasant to find one brilliant lad who had both comforts and sympathetic encouragement. When James’s father saw how the boy liked to handle tools, he gave him a set of his own, with which he promptly took to pieces everything on which he could lay hold and put most of the things together again successfully. He built a small electrical machine which gave out brilliant sparks, to the amazement of neighbor children and grown-ups as well. He was never strong enough to go to school regularly, but devoted himself when kept at home by illness, to the study of chemistry and physics. In 1755, when he was nineteen years old, he went to London and worked under an expert builder of delicate mathematical instruments—ships’ compasses and chronometers, machines in which any inaccuracies would be serious in their results. Watt probably owed much to the experience gained under this skilful man.

He returned a year later to Glasgow and intended to set up a modest shop of his own. But trades were strictly organized under guilds in those days, and Watt had not served the full term required of an apprentice; so he was not allowed to enter the trade. The University of Glasgow came to his aid and allowed him to use one of its rooms, setting up a shop in it for his special use and employing him to take care of its scientific apparatus under the title of mathematical instrument-maker for the university. This was a happy connection for young Watt, then not quite twenty-one years old, for it brought him into touch with men who could understand his work and be of assistance to him later.

To Watt was brought one day a classroom model of one of the steam engines then in use for pumping water from mines. This, the first really practicable engine employed in commercial work, was a machine invented by Thomas Newcomen and Thomas Savery, who in partnership had taken out patents and installed their first engine for commercial work in 1711. This engine made use of the expansive power of steam to work a piston. It had proved infinitely better than hand power to run a pump steadily and rapidly; but it was still far from perfect.

Watt repaired the engine, as any clever machine worker could have done. But he went beyond that. He used his mind on it. He set the model engine going after he had repaired it, putting water in the boiler. The engine worked as it should; but to Watt’s surprise the water in the boiler disappeared in a few minutes. The engine seemed to be using up the steam it was making faster than the boiler could supply it.

Watt had hit on the gravest defect in this type of engine. Steam had to be condensed in order to have it expand again and to make use of that expansive power, the very power that lifts the lid off the teakettle. But the old pump engine was so arranged that the main cylinder, used in the pumping, cooled, so to speak, between the strokes of the pump. So when fresh steam was turned in, it had to condense in sufficient quantity to warm up the sides of the cylinder which had been cooled by contact with the cold water being pumped. So much steam was used up in warming the pump cylinder that there was little left to run the pump action. That was why the water had disappeared so quickly in the running of the repaired model in Watt’s hands.

If the cylinder could be kept hot, thought Watt, the steam would not be repeatedly wasted in this way. But how could the cylinder be kept hot? On this problem Watt pondered many days. At last, one day as he was walking across the university campus, the idea came to him. Why could not he make a separate condenser in which the steam would be condensed outside the cylinder, and connect the two with a short pipe? He set to work at once on the idea, and made a model where just this difficulty was met. He tried it out, and it worked. The separate condenser was the first great Watt contribution to the steam engine. Some say it was his greatest contribution; but the others which followed it, while more technical and difficult to describe, were none the less useful. He made improvement after improvement, until in 1769 he took out patents on a machine which was the first real steam engine in which steam instead of the weight of outer air did the actual work of pushing down the piston in the cylinder, and in which all the other absolutely necessary features of his later models were included.

When the steam engine became more than a pump, when it became a machine which could turn the wheels of industry, the modern age in which we live began. "No single man in history did so much to change civilization. With him began the modern industrial era, the era of the factory, the era of machine-made conveniences. Because of his engine Watt must be regarded as one of the world’s greatest figures."

Because a boy of twelve wondered about the steam from a teakettle he revolutionized industry.


James Watt had made a steam engine that would do the work demanded of it. A colliery boy, George Stephenson, rose from a job as driver of a horse in the coal mine to tending a Watt pumping engine. So fascinated was he with all that had to do with engines and their ways that he went to evening school in the little village so that he might learn to read and write, and might read the books that explained their working. At eighteen years of age Stephenson was learning his letters; thirty years later he was outstripping all competitors in a contest for a successful steam locomotive which "must be able to draw, day by day, twenty tons’ weight . . . at ten miles an hour." This was the forerunner of the modern locomotive.

When James Watt had perfected the steam engine so that it was capable of doing heavy and sustained work, it was inevitable that far-sighted men should see that this engine would not always stay cooped up in coal mines but would replace horse power in hauling loads from one place to another. There had been rude tracks in England, leading from coal mines to ports, since the sixteenth century. Coal carts were heavy and ruts deep; so the workmen laid planks at the bottom of the ruts and found that the wagons moved more easily. To hold the planks at an even width they laid crosspieces, or "ties" as we call them, across the road. Wooden planks wore out; so strips of iron were put on the planks. The iron strips wore out the wooden wheels of the wagons, and by the eighteenth century iron wheels were in use. The wheels slipped off the edge of the plank or rail, and William Jessop invented in 1789 a wheel with a rim (or flange) on the inside, to keep it from slipping off the track. So the tracks were ready for the steam engine. But through all these changes the wagons or coal carts were still drawn by horses.

Stephenson was by no means the only man or the first man to put a steam engine into a wagon. Richard Trevithick, who lived from 1771 to 1833, was really the originator of the modern automobile, for he built "road wagons" driven by their own little steam engines. In 1804 he built a real steam locomotive which ran on rails and dragged behind it wagons loaded with twenty tons of iron ore. He made a little model passenger railway with a circular track, which he set up in London where curious people could come and see a tiny engine puff its way around the circuit.

Then along came George Stephenson, born in great poverty, never sent to school as a boy, but of great inventive genius, and fascinated by the pumping engine which he was allowed at the age of seventeen to tend. When he had learned to read he studied engines until he was finally allowed to build one for the colliery. It was used between the mine and a shipping port nine miles away, and drew eight loaded wagons weighing thirty tons up a slight grade.

Horse power was still cheaper than steam, but in 1821 when Stephenson became engineer for a new railway thirty-eight miles long, he persuaded the owners to make use of steam locomotives. It must have been a proud day in the engineer’s life when he drove the first engine over this road, hauling a freight train of thirty-four tiny wagons, the whole train weighing ninety tons. To the modern mind the glory of the moment would be somewhat dimmed by the fact that daily a man on horseback rode ahead of the train to make sure the way was safe and open, though it is said that where the grade was easiest he sometimes had to gallop for a few moments at a rate of fifteen miles an hour to keep the train from overtaking him.

Wise men saw by this time that steam was to be the motive power of future transportation. But there were many difficulties in the way. Engines were expensive to operate. The stagecoach lines and the canal companies opposed any licenses for steam railways. Landowners objected to having the noisy, puffing, smoking machines drive across their estates. In view of all the opposition, it is a wonder that any headway was made. But Stephenson, who was unwearying in his urgency for the steam engine, was engaged to build the Liverpool and Manchester line, the most ambitious railway to be constructed at that time. It was at first intended to use as motive power the faithful and dependable horse, or, if not always the horse, a car, with some sort of cable connection which would haul it along. But Stephenson was so persistent that the directors of the road finally offered a prize of £500 ($2,500) for an engine with a specified list of requirements that seemed to many impossible to meet. Stephenson, undaunted, went to work with his son Robert on the Rocket.

On the day of the contest, October 7, 1829, four engines were presented for the trial, the Novelty, the Sanspareil, the Perseverance, and the Rocket. Even before the judges arrived on the scene, the bellows in the Novelty gave out, so that it would be unable to compete that day. A defect was found in the boilers of the Sanspareil, which would require time to repair. So the contest was postponed.

The crowd of spectators which had gathered for the show was so disappointed that Stephenson brought out the Rocket, attached it to a coach containing thirty-six persons, and ran them along at the surprising and alarming rate of from twenty-six to thirty miles an hour. Their amazement and admiration were unbounded, and there was little surprise when at the later official trials the Rocket came off victorious with the £500 prize.

It has been said of the Novelty that according to its pictures it must have looked like "a milk can set in the rear of a wagon, with a little smokestack in front like a dashboard." The Rocket was hardly less quaint and impossible from the standpoint of our huge modern locomotives, but it holds its place as their forerunner through several distinct achievements in its mechanical construction, which were original with its inventor. With the success of George Stephenson and the Rocket, the dream of steam power for freight and passenger transportation passed out of the realm of theory and into the everyday world of fact.

A similar moment of interest and enthusiasm came in the United States when on August 9, 1831, the De Witt Clinton, built on much the same plan as the English locomotives and after their model, hauled its first passenger train over the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad. Full descriptions of that memorable trip remain to us.

Tickets had been sold at hotel offices in Albany to persons who had come from all over the state to see and, if possible, to share in this great event. The train consisted of five coaches, built on the familiar stagecoach pattern of the day. The "Master of Transportation," John T. Clarke, received these tickets, and the passengers seated themselves. He then walked forward to a little platform car, on which there was a barrel with water for the boiler, and seated himself. Drawing a tin horn from his pocket he blew a mighty blast as a signal to the engineer to start. Dave Matthews, the engineer, had a full head of steam on, so that there should be no question of getting a start with his heavy load. He opened the throttle and the train started with a jerk that threw the distinguished passengers against the roof or upon the floor; but the train was off for its trial trip.

The De Witt Clinton had been built for anthracite coal, but pitch pine was being used for this first journey. The passengers were soon covered with soot, and showers of burning sparks were thrown out which kept them busy putting out tiny fires. Some passengers put up umbrellas, but these were soon burned up and thrown overboard. Still nothing could quench the enthusiasm of these pioneer riders. Even when the couplings between the coaches proved so loose that the cars were jerked back and forth in a way that made remaining in the seats well-nigh impossible, the resourceful Master of Transportation and his engineer merely stopped the train long enough to raid a farmer’s rail fence and lash the coaches together with rails which would make the couplings more rigid. At the end of forty-six minutes the train pulled into its destination, having covered sixteen miles in that time. One gentleman had the presence of mind to pull out his notebook and write a line in it during the journey, in order to prove that it was possible to write even while moving at such a terrific speed. Cannon were fired, speeches were made, the story of that ride was told all over the country, and railroading in America had received as great an impetus from the De Witt Clinton success as it had in England from the epoch-making trip of the Rocket.

It is worth noting that the day of isolation had long passed when a discovery in one country was concealed from another. America’s first locomotives were bought from Stephenson and his fellow inventors in England; her first successes were directly due to those pioneer engines in which some of the greater mechanical difficulties of the steam locomotive had been first solved.

A Modern Descendant of the "De Witt Clinton"
Speed speaks in every line of this powerful engine. It can make more than a mile a minute.


Nicholas Allen, a Pennsylvania hunter in the period following the American Revolution, went out one day to hunt. When night fell he was too far up on the mountain to get home. He built himself a fire on the mountain ledge where he happened to be, cooked and ate his supper, wrapped his blanket about him, and lay down to sleep. A few hours later he was awakened by being uncomfortably warm. It seemed as if the ground on which he lay was warm. When he opened his eyes, instead of the darkness which had been about him when he went to sleep there was a strong light. Leaping up he discovered to his astonishment that the mountain seemed on fire all about him. He promptly betook himself to a higher spot where he could lie in safety and watch the smoldering fire. In the morning he went back to examine the place which he had selected for a night’s lodging. He had built his fire directly on an outcropping of coal.

Nicholas Allen knew about coal. He was aware that it had been found here and there in Pennsylvania by other hunters. While he himself and all his neighbors burned wood in their fireplaces, it was familiar knowledge to him that there was under the earth in many places solid rock that would burn, and that it could be chipped or mined out and used in place of wood.

Suppose a dweller in China in 1000 B.C., or an old Roman, or an ancient Briton before the invasion by Julius Cæsar, had waked up to find the ground under him afire! He would not have taken it so calmly. It would have seemed almost as surprising to him for a black rock to burn as it was to Tubal-cain for a rock to melt. Chinese, Romans, and ancient Britons did know about coal. Probably someone in every one of those countries found it out in some such way as Nicholas Allen did. But while it was a curious and interesting fact, it did not greatly matter to them. So long as they could go out, as our ancestors in this country did, and cut down virgin forests at their very doors, mining coal was too slow and laborious to be worth while.

England is the first Country in which coal mining seems to have been taken seriously. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries England’s forests were running out. There was danger that English fires would go out and English homes be cold unless some other fuel besides wood were used. So England began to dig into the ground for her coal. With only hand and animal labor it was a slow, weary task. As the digging went deeper, the coal pits filled with water. Pumps were rigged up, but they worked so slowly and drew up so little water that they hardly held their own against the incoming water. The first steam engines were used to run the pumps in England’s coal mines.

When that coal was being mined, the only call for it was as fuel to give heat to run England’s fires. It is strange that this steam engine which was to eat up coal by thousands and millions of tons should be first used in mines where that very coal was being dug.

The great moment in the history of coal came not when it was discovered, not even when it was first burned, but when a machine was made that could use its burning so that it gave out power. The steam engine changed coal from a good, faithful servant that kept man’s fires burning and cooked his food into a miracle-working giant. When men saw what power they could get from coal in the steam engine, they began to think up ways in which they could use that power. They were no longer limited by the work which their own muscles could do, or the work that they could get done by animals or by wind or by water. They invented machines which should set that power to the doing of enormous tasks. Man’s whole outlook changed when this giant worker was put at his command. From 1830 to the present so much of the work of the world has been done by machines fed by this useful fuel that this might well be called "The Century of Coal."


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© 2001, by Lynn Waterman