While steam engines have become a bit outdated, understanding how they work is still important. Steam engines and locomotives played a huge role in modernization and progress across the planet. Thanks to the steam engine, industrialization was possible on a massive scale and transport options were revolutionalized. So you might be wondering how one works. if you are, then you’ve found the right article for you.
After all, while steam engines might not be in day-to-day use these days, they’re still important. Not only are they important historically, but you can still visit steam locomotives and have a ride on them today. They might not be the most common or normal form of transport today, but that doesn’t mean the steam engine doesn’t still have its uses. It does. And even if it didn’t, knowing how they work is still important. They use a lot of common principles that knowing a bit more about could help you understand a range of different technologies.
What is a steam engine?
A steam engine is an engine for a vehicle, normally a locomotive but also sometimes a car or ship. We’ll have a look at how a steam engine works in a bit more detail, but it’s important to understand a bit more about why steam engines were such a huge deal and how they helped revolutionalize the world before we do that.
Why were steam engines so important?
You might think steam engines are just one type of engine, like many others. You might think they shouldn’t be seen as any more important than electric engines, petrol engines, gas engines or any other type of engine. But that’s looking at things from a modern perspective. The reality is, the steam engine was the first real type of engine that could be produced on a grand scale and power a number of different vehicles. They became crucial in shrinking borders and cutting travel times. They were an integral part of the industrial revolution.
Before steam engines and they transport options they bring, people had to get around on horseback. This made traveling even a few hundred miles take days. It meant that countries seemed much larger and locations that now seem close seemed much further away. This made it harder for people to mix with someone from different backgrounds. It meant you’d have to get a job in your local area (normally somewhere you could walk to). Employment, trade and general freedom was obviously nothing compared to what is today. The steam engine changed everything.
When railways were built (thanks to the steam engine), communities became more connected. It now became possible to trade over much greater areas. Businesses and industries grew, trade flourished and employment opportunities boomed. That was the industrial revolution. And a lot of it was thanks to the steam engine. It could be argued that the world we see today was shaped by it. The modern world of global commerce has a lot to thank the humble steam engine for.
And steam engines weren’t just hugely important in making trade and transport easier. They were actually a much more integral and direct part of the industrial revolution in a way some people fail to recognize: factories. That’s right, those factories that sprung up and are synonymous with the industrial revolution were most often powered by steam engines as well. Only ones that didn’t move. So the goods that were produced and the way they were transported were all thanks to steam engines.
How does a steam engine work?
Now you know a bit more about why steam engines were so important, you probably want to know how they really work. Well the obvious answer to that is: with steam. But let’s go into a bit more detail…
A typical steam engine in a locomotive would be what’s known in more detail as a piston steam engine. These piston steam engines sometimes had double-acting valves that allowed steam to act more efficiently in the unit.
A slide valve would be in charge of letting the steam out into the cylinders. This steam was normally created by burning coal, if you were unsure about that. That’s why running a locomotive often needed multiple workers constantly shoveling coal into the furnace. A control rod on the valve would normally be hooked to a cross-head so that the motion would work in the correct way for the steam engine to work properly.
Exhaust steam would vent out into the air. A steam engine would need to be topped up with water regularly as this is lost quickly when turned into exhaust steam. The opening and closing of valves created the “choo-choo” sounds you might be familiar with. Steam is created at very high pressure and this in turn powers the momentum of the locomotive. That’s because the cross-head (that’s powered by steam) is connected to a drive rod which in turn is connected to coupling rods that drive the wheels on the track.
The high-pressure steam that is created like this comes from a boiler. These are similar to the boilers you have in your home today, but aren’t completely the same. These boilers were either fire-tube boilers or water-tube boilers. Fire-tube boilers were more popular in the beginning.
In a water tube boiler, water runs through a number of tubes that are placed in the fire. This heats the water and creates a steam output, as well as an output of hot gases which are sent elsewhere.
So that’s generally how steam engines work. There are a lot of different variations, and the technology used in a locomotive differs slightly to that of a motor car or factory steam engine, but the principles remain the same, Obviously, you would need a much bigger steam engine with much more fuel to power a locomotive than a standard car, but they follow similar ideas.