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Strange But True: #1.

James Watt Did Not Invent the Steam Engine.

DESPITE those romantic tales about kitchen ranges and boiling kettles, we learned at school, James Watt did not invent the steam engine - he just improved a design that had been around for more than half a century.

The fact is that Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729), an English blacksmith, made the first practical power plant using the power of steam.

The steam engine envisioned by James Watt (1736-1819) was suggested by a model Newcomen engine given to him to repair as part of his instrument-making duties for the University of Glasgow in 1765. Newcomen's engines were in use for more than a century, employed mainly in draining mines where, of course, coal to fire the boilers was free and plentiful, so the deficiencies of the machine could be overlooked.
But in truth it was an inefficient device, because the cold water introduced to the cylinder on each cycle meant the cylinder was being alternately heated and cooled, at a heavy cost in fuel.

Watt's solution was to exhaust the steam from the cylinder into a separate chamber, which he called a condenser. Not only could the cylinder now be kept at its operating temperature, but it could also be closed to the atmosphere, with steam being introduced at either end alternately, providing two power strokes per cycle instead of one.

The movement of the piston itself was made to open and close the steam inlet and exhaust valves in the correct sequence.

The savings in energy were enormous, and when Watt also designed a rotary motion to replace Newcomen's up-and-down beam action, the way was open for steam engines to be used in factories.

However, it could be argued that Watt's success actually held back development of the steam engine. His partnership with Matthew Boulton in Birmingham produced a stranglehold on the business - Watt's patents were so worded that it was practically impossible for anyone to produce engines without infringing them, and the partners were ruthless in protecting their rights.

Throughout the 1780s and 90s, they stamped on anyone who tried to get involved so those who had ideas to take steam-engine development forward were forced to experiment in secret and kick their heels.

The expiration of the patents in 1800 was the signal for a massive leap forward, with Cornishman Richard Trevithick, in particular, taking development onto a new plane with his high-pressure engines which exhausted their spent steam into the atmosphere, instead of using a condenser.

It was a short step from there to making the steam engine mobile, but Watt himself was not interested. He left it to men like Trevithick, George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel to put the steam engine on wheels and into ships, thereby revolutionising the world of transport.

Strange But True: #2.

The Deadly Tomato!

In 1830, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson dispelled the common misconception at the time that tomatoes were poisonous. The Colonel ate tomatoes publicly on the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey, on September 26, 1830.

Although the roots of this fruit go way back to pre-Inca times, when tomatoes grew wild, tomatoes were long believed to be poisonous like other fruits in the nightshade family. Spanish explorers took tomatoes to Europe, but northern countries grew them for decoration and disparaged them as food. After the Colonel's display, chefs began experimenting with tomatoes in sauces, pastes and more.

Please Send Me Your Own Strange But True Stories.

"Strange But True" was first Printed in the Friends' Newsletter No. 6 in 1988. There has always been a fascination, in the human mind, about strange facts, and no more so than in the North East of England; which abounds with stories and bits of information that are hard to believe.

If you have any strange stories or facts that you would like to share with the Friends on this Website, why not contact us> right now.

Strange But True: #3.

Did you know that ...

The civil engineer Smeaton (of lighthouse fame) drew up plans to make the River Wear navigable so that Durham City could become an inland port?

That many cannon balls used during the Napoleonic Wars were cast at Tow Law?

That in 1898 a notice mysteriously appeared on Lanchester's village green declaring: - "No donkeys allowed on this green except parish councillors".

That the Golden Lion pub. at St. John's Chapel in Weardale was built on the orders of an 18th Century Bishop of Durham so that miners from the outlying lead mines could have a meeting place where they could tether their horses whilst attending church?

That the earthing up of the 'hall side' of the wall bordering the road lying immediately to the east of Beamish Hall was done to block out the sight and sound of the chauldron waggons passing up and down the waggon-way which preceeded the present road way?

That the two rivers of Tyne and Tees are less than a mile apart at their nearest point? (Study the area of Tyne Head Fell: map ref: - 340360: 760770)

That when lead was being transported by packhorse trains, some cruel train drivers would deliberately lightly load the leadhorse so that it could travel faster and further. Then in order to compel the more heavily laden train horses to keep up, he would connect the whole pack horse train together by tying the TONGUE of the horse behind to the tail of the horse in front.

That an early type of mine rescue breathing apparatus called the Pneumatagen contained a kind of filter (through which the miner atually breathed) made of ASBESTOS!

That the standard gauge for British Rail is the same as the width between Roman chariot wheels?

E. Cheeseman.


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