Steam Engine Time–Not to Be Confused With Steampunk Time

Most of you have heard the expression. Sounds almost Ecclesiastical, as in Ecclesiastes 3:1– “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” (Thank you, Roger McGuinn). All it really means is that things happen when they’re ready to happen. And I don’t mean in the mystical sense of “fate and Divine Purpose.” I mean when all the pieces are in place.

Take, for example, James Watt, usually called the Inventor of the Steam Engine. Only, he isn’t. James Watt didn’t invent the steam engine–the principle had been known since ancient times. A guy named Newcomen invented the first practical steam engine around 1712 with the sole purpose of draining flooded mineshafts. Not to take anything away from Newcomen, but that was mainly because it was only at this point in history that a manufacturing technique designed to make cannons was also able to make steel cylinders of a fine enough tolerance to use as a steam piston (and thank you James Burke. If you haven’t scored a copy of his series Connections, you’re missing out). That’s the key bit, and if Newcomen hadn’t come along, somebody else would have. It was, literally, Steam Engine Time. Which brings me back to James Watt. Once Newcomen had created the basic model, Watt’s genius is that he took Newcomen’s design and refined it into a much more efficient version. So efficient, in fact, it lasted nearly two hundred years until the development of the gasoline engine. Which more or less brings me to Sir George Cayley, Baronet (1773-1857).

Who, I hasten to point out, had nothing to do with the gasoline engine. Which, unfortunately for George Cayley, was exactly the problem. You may never have heard of Sir George Cayley, but he almost invented the airplane nearly fifty years before the Wright Brothers. He was the founder of modern aeronautics; he was the first to make a systematic study of birds’ wings since Da Vinci, but Cayley was much more thorough. He invented the dirigible around 1810, though his design was never made. He correctly identified the three key problems of powered flight: Lift, Propulsion, and Control, and was the first to suggest using a curved fixed-wing design for manned flight–before his time people were still trying to fly by flapping artificial wings. He was way ahead of his time. Too far, unfortunately. In 1853 his coachman was probably the first human being to fly in a heavier than air craft, a glider of Cayley’s design. It flew well but didn’t land so good–the Coachman broke his leg.  (And we cut Cayley some slack for not trying it himself; the man was in his 70’s by then). But getting back to that “almost” point–he had it all worked out, almost fifty years before the Wright Brothers. All the elements were in place, except one– propulsion.

Cayley had no way to power his designs. He cleverly built micro steam-engines to power his models, but the steam engine will simply not scale up to the levels needed for manned flight; they get far too heavy too fast before they’re creating sufficient power. All Cayley had was a stream engine when what he needed was a practical two-stroke gasoline engine and that had yet to be invented–the elements were not yet in place, and it just wasn’t time for the gasoline engine to exist. Cayley died in 1857 and 46 years later the Wright Brothers entered the history books, while Sir George Cayley is all but forgotten now. I’d never heard of him myself until I listened to a recorded interview with Terry Pratchett that mentioned him. It’s not really fair, but there it is.

They say you can’t fight destiny, but what you really can’t fight is Steam Engine Time.

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3 thoughts on “Steam Engine Time–Not to Be Confused With Steampunk Time

  1. That’s one of the problems I have with steampunk. It posits a bunch of advancements that have no justification for happening earlier than they did. And they seldom deal with the issue of 19th century thinking being given 20th century technology. I’m not that knowledgeable about History, but isn’t that the situation thta gave rise to the Great War? Nonetheless, that giant mechanical spider in “Wild Wild West” was neat, even more so than Salma Hayek in longjohns.

    • I tend to place Steampunk in the realm of technological fairy-tales. Cool visuals and neat to play with, but as a working universe it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

  2. Wonderful information here–not to mention the adoption of a great new slogan: Steam Engine Time! Love it!

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