by Chris Woodford. Last updated: May 18, 2014.
Imagine living off nothing but coal and
water and still having enough energy
to run at over 100 mph! That's exactly what a steam locomotive can do.
Although these giant mechanical dinosaurs are now extinct from most of
the world's railroads, steam technology lives on in people's hearts and
locomotives like this still run as tourist attractions on many heritage
Steam locomotives were powered by steam engines, and deserve to be
remembered because they swept the world through the Industrial
Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Steam engines rank with
radio, and television
among the greatest inventions of all time. They are marvels of machinery and excellent
examples of engineering, but under all that smoke and steam, how
exactly do they work?
Photo: A small, newly rebuilt steam locomotive
working on the Swanage Railway, England, in 2007.
Great Western Railway 0-6-2 Tank 6695 was rescued from a scrapyard in 1979 and took 26 years to restore to full working order at a cost of
£200,000 (approx US$400,000).
What powers a steam engine?
It takes energy to do absolutely anything
you can think of—to ride on a skateboard, to
fly on an airplane, to walk to the shops, or to drive a car down the
street. Most of the energy we use for transportation today comes from
oil, but that wasn't always the case. Until the early 20th century, coal was the
world's favorite fuel and it powered everything from trains and ships
to the ill-fated steam planes invented by American scientist
Samuel P. Langley, an early rival of the Wright brothers. What was so
special about coal? There's lots of it inside Earth, so it was
relatively inexpensive and widely available.
Coal is an organic chemical, which means
it's based on the element
carbon. Coal forms over millions of years when the remains of dead
plants get buried under rocks, squeezed by pressure, and
cooked by Earth's internal heat. Lumps of coal are really lumps of
energy. The carbon inside them is locked to atoms of hydrogen and
oxygen by joints called chemical bonds. When we burn coal on a fire,
the bonds break apart and the energy is released in the form of heat.
What is a steam engine?
A steam engine is a machine that burns coal to release the heat
energy it contains—so it's an example of what we call a heat engine. It's
a bit like a giant kettle sitting on top of a coal fire. The heat from the fire boils the water in the kettle and turns it into steam. But instead of blowing off uselessly into the air,
like the steam from a kettle, the steam is captured and used to power a
machine. Let's find out how!
Photo: The main parts of a steam locomotive.
Click the small photo to see a much bigger one.
This is ex-British Railways Standard 4MT locomotive number 80104 (built at Brighton in 1955)
working on the Swanage Railway, England in August 2008.
How a steam engine works
Crudely speaking, there are four different parts in a steam engine:
- A fire where the coal burns.
- A boiler full of water that the fire heats up to make steam.
- A cylinder and piston, rather like a bicycle pump but much
bigger. Steam from the boiler is piped into the cylinder, causing the
piston to move first one way then the other. This in and out movement
(which is also known as "reciprocating") is used to drive...
- A machine attached to the piston. That could be anything from a
water pump to a factory machine... or even a giant steam locomotive
running up and down a railroad.
That's a very simplified description, of course. In reality, there are hundreds or perhaps even thousands of parts in even
the smallest locomotive.
It's easiest to see how everything works in our little animation
of a steam locomotive, below. Inside the locomotive cab, you load coal
into the firebox (1), which is quite
literally a metal box
containing a roaring coal fire. The fire heats up the boiler—the "giant
kettle" inside the locomotive.
The boiler (2) in a steam locomotive
doesn't look much like
a kettle you'd use to make a cup of tea, but it works
the same way, producing steam under high pressure.
The boiler is a big tank of water with dozens of thin metal tubes
through it (for simplicity, we show only one here, colored orange).
The tubes run from the firebox to the chimney, carrying the heat and
the smoke of the fire with them (shown as white dots inside the tube).
This arrangement of boiler tubes, as they are called, means the
fire can heat the water in the boiler tank much faster, so it produces steam
more quickly and efficiently. The water that makes the steam either
comes from tanks mounted on the side of the locomotive or from a separate wagon called a tender, pulled behind the
locomotive. (The tender also carries the locomotive's supply of coal.) You can see a photo
of a tender showing its water tank further down this page.
The steam generated in the boiler flows down into a cylinder (3)
just ahead of the wheels, pushing a tight-fitting plunger, the piston
(4), back and forth. A little mechanical gate in the cylinder, known as
an inlet valve
(shown in orange) lets the steam in. The piston is connected to one or
more of the locomotive's wheels through a kind of arm-elbow-shoulder
joint called a crank and connecting rod
As the piston pushes, the crank and connecting rod turn the
locomotive's wheels and power the train along (6).
When the piston has reached the end of the cylinder, it can push no
further. The train's momentum (tendency to keep moving) carries the
crank onwards, pushing the piston back into the cylinder the way
it came. The steam inlet valve closes. An outlet valve opens and the
piston pushes the steam back through the cylinder and out up the
locomotive's chimney (7). The intermittent chuff-chuff noise that a
steam engine makes, and its intermittent puffs of smoke, happen when
the piston moves back and forth in the cylinder.
There's a cylinder on each side of the locomotive and the two cylinders
fire slightly out of step with one another to ensure there's always some
power pushing the engine along.
Types of steam engine
Photo: Close-up of the piston and cylinder in a steam engine.
Our diagram up above shows a very simple, one-cylinder steam engine powering
a steam locomotive down a track. This is called a rotary
engine, because the piston's job is to make a wheel rotate. The
earliest steam engines worked in an entirely different way. Instead of
turning a wheel, the piston pushed a beam up and down in a simple
back-and-forth or reciprocating motion.
engines were used to pump water out of flooded coal mines in the early
Our diagram shows steam pushing the piston one way and the momentum
of the locomotive driving it the other way. This is called a single-acting
steam engine and it's quite an inefficient design because the piston is
being powered only half the time. A much better (though slightly more
complex) design uses extra steam pipes and valves to make steam push
the piston first one way and then the other. This is called a double-acting
(or counterflow) steam engine.
It's much more powerful because steam is driving the piston all the
The first steam engines were very large and inefficient, which means
it took huge amounts of coal to get them to do anything. Later engines
produced steam at much higher pressure: the steam was produced in a
smaller, much stronger boiler so it squeezed out with more force and
blew the piston harder. The extra force of high-pressure
engines allowed engineers to make them lighter and more compact,
and it was this that paved the way for steam locomotives, steam ships,
and steam cars.
Photo: Steam engines could not carry all the water
they needed for a long journey. Periodically, they would have to stop to refill at
track-side water tanks like this one (above) on the Swanage Railway.
Larger engines had tenders: trucks they hauled behind that held supplies of
coal (in front of the red line we've drawn) and water (behind the red line). The coal rests on an angled
plate inside the tender that makes it tip naturally toward an opening
at the front where the fireman can easily shovel it into the firebox.
Below: You can see what the tender's like inside on this unusual photo of an empty tender,
photographed from slightly above and behind, taken at Think Tank, the museum of science in Birmingham, England. This tender holds about 18000 liters (4000 UK gallons) of water and belongs to the museum's City of Birmingham locomotive.
Did steam really die?
Photo: Steam engines were gradually replaced by diesels. It's ironic that some of the older diesels are now being preserved on heritage lines and treated with
almost as much reverence as steam engines. This one is a preserved
British Rail Class 55 ("Deltic"), number 55022, called Royal Scots Grey dating from 1960. So it's
actually older than some of the very last steam trains that were made!
Coal was a cheap and abundant fuel during the early Industrial
Revolution, but the invention of the gasoline engine
(petrol engine) in the mid-19th century heralded a new era:
during the 20th century, oil overtook coal as the world's favorite
fuel. Steam engines are extremely inefficient, wasting around 80-90 percent
of all the energy they produce from coal. That means they have to burn
enormous amounts of coal to produce useful amounts of power.
A steam engine is so inefficient because the fire that burns the coal is
totally separate (and often some distance from) the cylinder that turns
the heat energy in the steam into mechanical energy that powers the
machine. This design is called an external combustion engine
because the fire and boiler are outside the cylinder. It's inefficient
because energy is wasted as the heat and steam travel from the fire,
via the boiler, to the cylinder. Gasoline- and diesel-powered engines are based on a totally different design called
an internal combustion engine. The gasoline or diesel fuel
is burned inside the cylinder, not outside it, and this makes
internal combustion engines considerably more efficient.
(You can read more about internal and external combustion in our overview
Oil has many other advantages too: it's cleaner than coal, makes less
air pollution, and is much easier to transport in pipes.
That's largely why steam locomotives disappeared from our railroads—diesel locomotives were
altogether more convenient. It takes hours to fire up a steam engine before you can use it; you can
get a diesel engine running in less than a minute. Steam engines disappeared from factories when electricity
became a more convenient way of powering buildings. Who wants to load coal into a factory every day when they can just
flick on switches to make things work?
But things are not quite what they seem. Steam and coal never did
Where does the electricity we use come from?
It would be great if it all came from renewable energy
(wind turbines, solar panels, and so on), but
much of it still comes from coal,
burned in power plants miles away from
our homes and factories.
Inside a coal-fired power plant, coal is still burned to make steam, driving windmill-like devices called
steam turbines, which are much more efficient than steam engines. As they rotate, they turn
electromagnetic generators and produce electricity.
So, you see, although steam locomotives have vanished from our
railways, steam power
is alive and well—and just as important as it ever was!
Photo: Some of the steam engines that run on heritage lines
were still relatively new when they were withdrawn from service.
This one, Bulleid Pacific No. 34070 "Manston," was built in 1947 and withdrawn less than 20 years later (in 1964).
After a long restoration by Southern Locomotives, it returned to
service on the Swanage Railway in September 2008.
A wonderfully impressive sight, it weighs 128 tons and can reach speeds of over 160km/h (100mph).
Who invented the steam engine... and when?
Here's a brief history of steam power:
- 1st century CE: Hero of Alexandria
demonstrates a steam-powered spinning sphere called an aeolipile.
- 16th century CE: Italian architect Giovanni
(1571–1640) uses a steam jet to rotate the blades of a small wheel,
anticipating the steam turbine developed by Sir Charles Parsons in 1884.
- 1680: Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens
makes the first piston engine using a simple cylinder and piston
powered by exploding gunpowder. Huygens' assistant Denis
(1648–c.1712) realizes steam is a better way to drive a cylinder and
- 1698: Thomas Savery (c.1650–1715)
steam-powered water pump called the Miner's Friend. It's a simple
reciprocating steam engine (or beam engine) for pumping water from
- 1712: Englishman Thomas Newcomen
(1663–1729) develops a
much better design of steam-powered, water-pumping engine than Savery
and is usually credited with inventing the steam engine. A
Scottish engineer named James Watt
(1736–1819) figures out a
much more efficient way of making power from steam after improving a
model of the Newcomen engine. Watt's improvements of Newcomen's
engine lead to the widespread adoption of steam.
- 1770: French army officer Nicolas-Joseph
(1725–1804) invents a steam-powered, three-wheeled tractor.
- 1797: English mining engineer Richard
(1771–1833) develops a high-pressure steam version of Watt's engine,
paving the way for steam locomotives.
- 1803: English engineer Arthur Woolf
(1776–1837) makes a
steam engine with more than one cylinder.
- 1804: American industrialist Oliver Evans
invents a steam-powered passenger vehicle. Like Trevithick, he
recognizes the importance of high-pressure steam and builds more than
50 steam-powered vehicles.
- 1807: American engineer Robert Fulton
the first steamboat service along the Hudson River.
- 1819: Steam-powered ocean ship Savannah
Atlantic from New York to Liverpool in only 27 days.
- 1882: The prolific American inventor Thomas
(1847–1931) opens the world's first commercial power plant at Pearl
Street, New York. It uses high-speed steam engines to power the
- 1884: English engineer Sir Charles Parsons
develops the steam turbine for his high-speed steam boat Turbinia.
Photo: Think of steam engines and you probably think of steam locomotives, but ships were steam powered too before diesel engines came along. This one is the beautifully restored PS Waverley, the last ocean-going paddle steamer in the world, dating from 1947 and steaming into Swanage Pier in September 2009.
Find out more
On this website
On other websites
- Steam trains: Some wonderfully evocative TV and radio clips from the BBC.
- Flickr: Steam Powered: A Flickr group for steam-engine enthusiasts. Currently over 32,000 photos from around 1000 members.
- York, beyond expectation: A great description of the wonderful cutaway steam engine at the National Railway Museum in York, England.
- Steam Locomotive Operation: This is a great "virtual" guide to driving a steam locomotive using a RailWorks computer simulation of the inside of the cab.
- Steam train driving course at the Lavender Line: Watch a cab video of someone driving a steam train. There's no commentary and it's hard to know what the driver is doing, but you get a sense of how "physical" it is to drive a steam train!
- Semmens, PWB and AJ Goldfinch. How Steam Locomotives Really Work . New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. I've not read this one completely, but it looks quite good from the extracts I've seen. Quite detailed (348 pages) and with very much a British flavor.
- Yorke, Stan. Steam Engines Explained. New York: Countryside Books, 2009. A superb little book with fantastically clear illustrations of the different types of steam engines. Fairly easy to find at bookstores in the UK; if you're overseas, try the
Countryside Books website.
History (for older readers)
- Wolmar, Christian. Fire and Steam. London: Atlantic Books, 2008. A superb book about the history of rail in Britain. Wolmar is a passionate and knowledgeable transport journalist in the UK and the perfect person to write a book like this.
- Wolmar, Christian. Blood, Iron, & Gold: How the Railroads Transformed the World. New York: PublicAffairs, 2010. A follow-up to Fire and Steam, this explores how railways spread through other countries.
History (for younger readers)
- Collier, James Lincoln. Steam Engines: Great Inventions. New York: Marshall Cavendish/Benchmark Books 2005. A short history of steam engines for young readers.
- Whiting, Jim. James Watt & The Steam Engine.
Hockessin, DE: Mitchell Lane., 2006. A biography of Watt for readers aged about 9–12.
- Woodford, Chris. Power and Energy. New York: Facts on File, 2004. This is my own 96-page history of how humans have harnessed different kinds of energy to power the modern world. Not very much about steam engines, I'm afraid. Again, aimed at the 9–12 age range.