Tag Archives: Industrial Revolution


Robert Fulton was a portrait artist who had the good sense to get out of the art business and into something that made money.

American portrait artist and inventor Robert Fulton was fascinated with the possibilities of steam power. He had acquired some political and financial backing—and an exclusive license to run steamboats on the Hudson River. After designing a steam-driven submarine, he came up with a steamboat design.

“Fulton had immense success with his steamboat Clermont in traveling the 150 miles of the Hudson River from New York City to Albany in just over 30 hours. Fulton recognized the economic potential of using steamboats to move people and goods up and down the Mississippi and in 1811 the New Orleans became the first steamboat on the mighty river thus ushering in a new era of river transportation and a romantic period defined by sidewheelers and sternwheelers.”

Just as we saw with the opening of the Erie Canal, farmers and small businesses suddenly had an affordable way to get their goods to a big market like New Orleans—or from there to the rest of the world.

They built ’em even bigger than this.

If you want the real flavor of steamboating in its heyday, you can read Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/245/245-h/245-h.htm
What a book! Young Sam Clemens is taught to pilot a riverboat by the master, Mr Bixby. He encounters all the characters of that time and place, because literally every class of people rode the riverboat.

You can still take a cruise aboard a steamship today: https://www.steamboatnatchez.com/
or build a scale model of the Clermont: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=et3ZgVyi968
whose gear train really works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAVLH23qZcA

History of Steamboats on the Mississippi River


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Industrial-strength sketches

More steel-working stuff. I did these sketches just for fun.

Detail of a steelworker in a Thomas Hart Benton mural

A converter gets a blast of air shot through its molten steel. The air is pumped in from the bottom.

From a photo of a Polish coal miner in West Virginia. I saw the face while doing research and had to draw it.


Don’t try this at home

Bessemer macho—this is me pretending to be Thomas Hart Benton. He painted guys with their shirts off fooling around with 3,000° molten steel.

You can’t haul hundreds of passengers from one point to another without really strong rails. Wood, or even cast iron, aren’t going to hold up under that weight. Luckily, there was steel. The only drawback: steel was expensive.

Steel is an alloy of two metals. Usually it’s iron and carbon (coke). As you may imagine, iron and carbon need to get really hot before they become molten and mix together. The process was fuel-intensive—you needed a whole lot of coal to heat up the metal. But in 1855 Henry Bessemer figured out that if he pumped air through molten steel, the bits of carbon burned even hotter—so much hotter that the steel turned out harder using less fuel. The Bessemer process allowed steel to be mass-produced for way less money.

Because Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is my second home-town (I lived in Sliberty for 20 years, jaggers), I must celebrate William Kelly who developed the same process as Bessemer at almost the same time (1847). A blast of air dramatically heats the molten pig iron because the impurities burn themselves up more quickly. What’s left is harder steel. The cast-off impurities are called slag.

Cheap, quality steel made Great Britain and the United States leaders in the Industrial Age.

How does coke and coal play into steel making?


Steel Production


Thomas Hart Benton’s epic “America Today” at the Met

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The Great Steam Locomotive Race


It didn’t take long for smart business types to figure out a locomotive that could haul coal or slate might be useful to carry passengers on steel rails. The railway from Stockton and Darlington opened in 1825. The next year work began on the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. In October 1829, the railway’s owners staged a competition: who could build the fastest, most powerful locomotive to pull heavy loads over long distances? A race between steam locomotives! Thousands of people came out to watch, lining up along the route. Competition was fierce—but at the end of the race, Stephenson’s locomotive ‘Rocket’ was the winner, breaking the previous speed record by clocking 36 miles per hour!

This was the birth of passenger railways. The world became a place anyone—not just traders or explorers—could travel around.

These may give you some of the flavor—

Here’s a juicy slice of instructive kid lit from the Victorian Era—

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Hot and steamy!

George Stephenson is another one of those tinkerers whose genius is improving an existing invention. Like Trevithick, he worked in a coal mine. Stephenson took the steam locomotive to its next level, making it more powerful.

The basic principle of a steam engine is: fire heats water in a boiler; the water turns to steam; the steam expands and creates pressure; the steam escapes into a cylinder to push a piston. The cylinder has 2 openings to let in steam so that the piston is pushed back and forth as steam fills one side and then the other. The piston is attached to a wheel, so the piston’s back-and-forth motion is changed into circular motion.

How to improve that? One way was to run copper pipes from the fire through the boiler so water gets hotter. Then you could mix the smoke from those pipes with the steam exhaust (from the cylinder) in a smoke box. The super-hot smoke and steam want to quickly escape up through a blast pipe (chimney). That in turn pulls more air into the firebox and makes the fire burn hotter. That means more steam, more pressure—so the piston moves faster with more power.

Stephenson designed the cylinders/pistons closer to horizontal, so they lost less energy. He also attached them directly to the driving wheels. Trevithick’s design had pistons that turned great gears that turned the driving wheels. It transferred energy from a piston to a gear to another gear, losing a little energy with each step. Remember how concerned Harrison was with friction between moving parts of a clock?



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The Age of Steam

Over-simplified drawing of a steam engine. The fire heats the water; water turns into steam, steam expands and enters the chamber; steam forces the piston into the other chamber; piston pushes the beam; beam turns the wheel. The wheel pushes the switch that shuts off first chamber so steam enters the second chamber; piston moves down.

As sailing ships were being designed bigger, speedier and lovelier—two or three tinkerers were fooling around with a way to get water out of coal mines.

Mines are dug to extract valuable minerals. Sometimes the digging will open up a spring and water flows in, flooding the mine. Horses or men worked pumps to empty the mines, but animals and people tire out easily. In 1698 Thomas Savery invented a steam pump to get water out of mines. His invention had limitations (it didn’t work if the mine were too deep) and it had an unhappy tendency to explode.

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen invented a steam engine that moved a heavy beam which worked a pump. It had limitations as well—his engine needed constantly to be fussed with to keep it cool or hot, which made it inefficient. In other words, it needed lots of energy to make it put out energy.

In 1765, James Watt made some big design changes to Newcomen’s engine which made it efficient. It had a piston which could work a pump by turning a wheel.

https://www.livescience.com/44186-who-invented-the-steam-engine.html Elizabeth Palermo
https://www.livescience.com/2612-steam-engine-changed-world.html Heather Whipps