Exploring the fascinating stories behind the invention and development of the steam engine, the electrical generator and the steam turbine.
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Hello and welcome to The Genius Of Invention.
I'm Michael Mosley.
I'll be exploring some of the greatest inventions in history
and the geniuses behind them.
I'll be joined by industrial archaeologist Dr Cassie Newland
and professor of engineering Mark Miodownik.
And together, we'll be uncovering the story of invention
and Britain's role in shaping the modern world.
The screens you're looking at now, the lights in your house,
none of it would be possible without the brilliant minds
who learned how to unleash the secrets of power itself.
In this programme, we'll be looking at three key inventions
that represent pivotal moments in our growing love affair with power,
which helped us to produce it, control it and consume it.
The story of power begins with the steam engine.
The ability to take heat energy and turn it into usable, useful power
has transformed our lives.
The genius of the steam engine is that it was based
on simple scientific principles,
as Professor Mark Miodownik explains.
This is a working model of the first ever steam engine.
The engine that changed the world, and quite rightly,
the first invention in our series.
Now, in the 18th and 19th centuries,
when people were thinking about using steam, they thought,
"Well, just get a lot of steam and get it to rotate something."
But when that's metal and heavy, you have to have very high pressure,
but when they tried working on those principles,
what they found is that when you get very high-pressure steam,
it basically just blows everything up.
They didn't have the materials to make it work.
People died left, right and centre.
So that was a dead end,
and they didn't really know where to go forward
until there was a bit of genius.
The first ever practical engine was powered by steam,
but not in the way you might expect.
It uses steam the wrong way.
When you heat water, it turns from a liquid into a vapour,
which will expand to replace the air in the vessel.
But if you seal that vessel and add cold water to condense the steam,
it will return to liquid form and leave behind a vacuum.
What happens next is the force behind all early steam engines.
I want to show you a demo showing how using steam the wrong way
was actually the right way.
This is a normal oil drum.
And we've filled it with steam, and I'm going to destroy it
to show the principle behind the steam engine.
the thing is, we've got steam in here,
but although it's coming out at quite a rate there,
inside it's the pressure around us, it's the same pressure as air.
But that isn't such an appreciable pressure.
You've got a sky full of air on your shoulders,
that's like having a ton pushing down on you.
Why, when you've got a ton weight hanging on your shoulders,
aren't you crushed?
Yeah, OK, well, that's true, but it's also in your lungs pushing out,
it's also around you pushing up,
so you've got it from all directions, and so it all evenly breaks down.
Now, what we're going to try is saying,
if you've got the pressure of the steam inside and the air outside,
what if you mess around with that equilibrium?
How much force does that generate?
And the result is a lot, presumably.
A lot. THEY LAUGH
-Now, your job is to turn off the steam.
And Cassie, your job is to turn on a spray of water,
-which is going to cool the steam.
And my job is to direct you over here. THEY LAUGH
From way back there? OK.
Have you ever done this before?
I've done this before, but on a smaller scale,
on a tin can, and it works beautifully. THEY LAUGH
-In quick succession. OK, ready?
Now that is absolutely astonishing.
You really weren't expecting the force to be that great,
it just crumpled this steel as if it was just a toy.
And that's just atmospheric pressure.
Yeah, this is just the pressure of the room crumpling in,
so we've created a vacuum in there by putting the steam in there,
then turning off the valve, and then Cassie sprayed some water in there,
that condensed the steam, created a vacuum,
and the rest of the room did the rest.
That demonstrates it's exactly the same force that was harnessed
in the first steam engine.
Now, its full name was the Atmospheric Steam Engine,
and it was invented in 1712 by a blacksmith from Dartmouth
called Thomas Newcomen.
For thousands of years,
people have looked for a reliable source of power.
And this giant machine is the engine that finally cracked it.
All it needed was heat from coal,
which created steam,
which condensed to leave a vacuum,
and the weight of the atmosphere did the rest.
Finally we had a mechanical process
where you could put energy in and get work out.
The world was about to change more in the next 200 years
than it had in the previous thousand.
But not initially that fast.
Now, you might imagine that once somebody had designed and built
a working steam engine,
that lots of other people would come in and tinker,
try and improve it,
and in fact dream up all sorts of other uses for it.
But for over 50 years, there was only one type of steam engine
in the world, and it did one deeply unglamorous, albeit useful thing.
Pumping water out of mines.
'They say necessity is the mother of invention.
'And in the case of the steam engine,
'necessity wasn't some grand dream of bringing power to the world.
'It was the result of a simple economic desire.
'To extract coal and ores from deeper and deeper mines.
'To do that, they needed a really good pump.'
I must admit, I have never been down a mine as wet as this.
It's literally pouring out the ceiling.
How deep are we at the moment?
Er...we must be about 150, 160 feet down.
And when you go down further, you get more and more water?
You get more and more water, yes.
You can absolutely see the problem they had.
What did they do about it?
They actually had to bail it out, or "wind" it out.
So a very labour-intensive process.
But manpower and horses couldn't drain all this water fast enough.
Enter local blacksmith, Thomas Newcomen.
You may never have heard of him,
and there are no surviving pictures,
yet he built the world's first practical steam engine,
and transformed the mining industry.
His first engine was installed at a coal mine near Birmingham in 1712.
It completed 12 strokes a minute,
each stroke lifting 10 gallons of water.
Within 20 years, over 100 of his engines had been installed
at mines all over the country.
Now, the Newcomen engine allowed miners
to go deeper and deeper underground,
but the trouble was, it was monstrously inefficient.
It consumed a huge amount of coal,
and coal was very difficult and expensive to transport.
It transformed the mining industry,
but it was never going to power an industrial revolution.
The story of how the Atmospheric Steam Engine
came to drive a revolution is the story of inventiveness itself.
The profound desire to make things work better.
The atmospheric engine was nothing like anything that had come before,
and Newcomen's version of it reigned supreme for decades.
When it was replaced, it was by an innovation that was so radical,
it was almost like a completely different machine.
And the man behind this innovation was James Gaius Watt.
In 1763, James Watt, a mechanical instrument maker in Glasgow,
was asked to repair a model of the by now world-famous Newcomen engine
that was being used in the university to instruct students.
He first thought of it as just a model, almost like a plaything toy.
But gradually, by investigating the different elements of it
in more and more detail, taking it apart,
creating alternatives to the various aspects of the model,
he began almost to think of it as a kind of scientific experiment,
a composite scientific experiment.
Something that could perhaps be developed
in order to create power from steam in a better way.
This drive to make the engine more efficient obsessed Watt.
Finally, in 1765, he had a simple but brilliant idea.
Now, this is an extract from a letter he wrote
describing his eureka moment.
"I was thinking upon the engine at the time,
"and had gone as far as the herd's house,
"when the idea came into my mind that if a communication were made
"between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel,
"steam would rush into it,
"and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder."
I like this bit.
"I had not walked further than the golf course
"when the whole thing was arranged in my mind."
It was as easy as that.
With the idea burning brightly in his mind,
Watt went off and had this made.
It's a separate condenser, and this is actually the first, the original.
Now, this allowed Watt to build steam engines
that were more powerful, more efficient,
more portable than anything that had been seen before.
Watt's separate condenser worked on the same principles
as Newcomen's engine, but it removed the need
to repeatedly heat and cool the same cylinder,
which saved a lot of energy.
It was so efficient and so popular
that it made James Watt a very rich man
and revolutionised industry.
The building of the first proper steam engine by Thomas Newcomen
utterly transformed the mining industry.
And when James Watt improved on his design,
suddenly steam engines were everywhere.
Cassie Newland has been to Lancashire
to see how the steam engine transformed an entire way of life.
Newcomen's engine used so much coal,
it was only really cost-effective at a coal mine.
But once Watt started improving his engine,
making it much more efficient
and increasing the type of work it could do,
it was poised to radicalise industry.
Now, for the first time, we could use it to power other machines.
This is Queen Street Mill in Burnley.
It's home to over 300 power looms,
and it's one of the first factories in the world.
They may seem noisy and antiquated, but in the 19th century,
these machines powered a revolution in Lancashire,
transforming it into one of the greatest industrial centres
on the planet.
Until the late 18th century, weaving was a cottage industry.
Men, women and children all working from home or in small groups,
using hand-powered equipment.
'All that changed with the advent of powered machinery.
'Huge numbers of machines could be tethered to the same engine.'
Power had finally brought us industrialisation.
People were no longer the providers of energy.
Instead, they now operated the machines
that could do it far more efficiently.
'By 1860, Lancashire produced half the cotton in the world.'
But the steam engine did more than just boost profits
and increase production.
For the first time, it took work outside of the family home.
It effectively invented the job.
So what are conditions like for the hand loom weavers
arriving in these factories?
Women and children who'd worked together before,
but as family units, in the factory,
become just parts of a labour force.
Also there's a much greater division of labour,
so the whole of the work process becomes routinised.
On the wider scale, steam must have brought more benefits.
All the products that are pouring out of these factories are cheaper,
and working people can afford to buy them.
And of course, all the time, their pay does go up,
and there's regular work as well,
and people are able to buy all kinds of new products.
The wider impact of steam power is that it powers a factory system
that is delivering cheaper products
that can be sold all around the world.
By 1870, Britain's the richest, most powerful country
the world has ever known.
The workshop of the world.
Britain's worldwide success was thanks to its heroes of invention.
For all the early hardships, steam still leaves us a lasting legacy.
From the genius of Watt's steam condenser,
we get engines which not only drive an industrial revolution,
but a social revolution too.
In the 18th century, Thomas Newcomen and James Watt
discovered how to harness the power of steam
and use it to drive machinery.
The steam engine powered the Industrial Revolution
and made Britain a world leader, but it had its limits.
If power was to become more accessible to everyone,
then someone had to find a way of transforming mechanical energy
into a form of energy that was frankly more useful.
To do that required a particularly impressive genius,
as Mark has been finding out.
Newcomen and Watt were both engineers.
They achieved incredible things because they understood machinery -
how to make large pieces of metal move and create work.
Our next inventor couldn't be more different.
His speciality was pure science,
and he was about to uncover the mysteries of a universal force
that would radicalise our relationship with power.
I'm at the Royal Institution in London,
and this is its most celebrated member, Michael Faraday.
In the 1820s, he carried out a series of revolutionary experiments here.
It was around this time that he started experimenting in the area
that would define his career - electricity.
But just as Watt had been inspired by Newcomen's groundbreaking work,
Faraday's incredible discoveries could never have happened
without the work of others.
This is the world's first battery,
and it was invented by Alessandro Luigi Volta in 1800.
This is a model of the original battery,
and it consists of discs of copper and zinc, alternately spaced,
separated by paper which has been dipped in acid.
And we've assembled some of these alternate plates here.
If I put this top plate on, of zinc,
it should produce an electric current
because of the reaction between the metals and the acid,
and that, we've wired up to this little electric hamster,
and that hamster should go.
If all goes to plan.
It stuttered along.
And that was the problem with these early batteries -
the power only lasted for as long as the reaction was sustained.
Across Europe, scientists were experimenting with Volta's battery,
and in 1821,
Hans Christian Oersted uncovered some very unusual behaviour.
While preparing for a lecture,
Oersted noticed that when he connected a copper wire to a battery
and held it near a compass, the needle moves.
That may not seem much now,
but that's the beginning of electromagnetism,
the first demonstration that electricity and magnetism
can create motion.
Faraday used these two critical discoveries
to tap into the universe's very own power system.
Here in his workshop at the Royal Institution,
Faraday showed that electricity, magnetism and motion
are all firmly linked.
Just a year after Oersted's discovery, Faraday designed this.
There's wire that goes into a pool of mercury
to which a magnet is attached.
And when you pass a current through that wire, watch what happens.
Believe it or not, this is the world's first electric motor.
Ten years passed, and with proof that magnetism and electricity
could drive motion, Faraday made an incredible intellectual leap.
If electricity and magnetism can create motion, Faraday thought,
could the reverse be true?
Could motion and magnetism create electricity?
Well, he answered that emphatically with this rudimentary device.
This pole in the middle is a magnet.
And there's a tube here, which he's wrapped round with copper wire
and covered it with cloth, and attached two small lights.
Now, watch what happens when I move the coil through the magnetic field.
I know it looks ridiculous, but what's happening is quite amazing -
the light is lighting up.
And that means that electricity is being generated in the coil
by just moving through the magnetic field.
What Faraday had created here is the world's first electricity generator.
Where work was once created by physical force
of cylinders, gears and pistons, now all we had to do was move a magnet.
And from that process, out flowed the incredible force of electricity.
And while we owe a huge debt to Faraday and his eureka moment,
spare a thought for Volta and Oersted,
without whose building blocks
we might be living in a very different world now.
They did for Faraday what Thomas Newcomen did for James Watt -
provided the foundation for some truly genius inventions.
In the early 19th century,
the pioneering work of the scientist Michael Faraday
unleashed the power of electricity,
and led to the invention of the world's first generator.
But how did we get from Michael Faraday's table-top experiments
to the giant power stations
and the nationwide electrical distribution systems
that we have today?
The ability to put energy in and get work out had transformed industry.
We could have power whenever we wanted it.
As long as the engine came with it.
But Faraday's experiments eventually made it possible
to separate the power from the engine.
Electricity can travel hundreds of miles
from where it is first generated.
Power can be released at the flick of a switch,
and using it in huge quantities has become part of our daily lives.
But wind back the clock 130 years to, say, the 1880s,
and it is a very different world.
There are no slick electronic gadgets or big screens.
So what on earth did the Victorians need electricity for?
It all started in the rather unlikely surroundings
of the Savoy Theatre.
'Going to the theatre in the 19th century
'was not a particularly enjoyable experience.'
Because the whole thing was lit by gas lamps, it was hot,
it was stuffy, and it was incredibly smelly.
On October 10th, 1881, the audience came to see a new production
of Gilbert and Sullivan's opera, Patience.
It was a groundbreaking evening in more ways than one.
As the actors strode out onto the stage that evening,
they were lit for the first time ever by electric power.
The Savoy Theatre in London
became the first public building in the world
to fully exploit the wonders of electricity.
The lightbulb was invented by Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison.
This basic human need for light
created the world's first electricity-hungry product.
Edison was a better businessman than Swan,
and he realised there was serious money to be made,
not just from producing lightbulbs,
but also selling the electricity needed to power the lightbulbs.
Now, the Savoy Theatre had its own generators,
but this was hardly a practical solution for most people.
Edison's brilliant idea
was to remove the need for a personal generator,
and centralise the source of power.
He proclaimed, "We will make electricity so cheap
"that only the rich will burn candles."
In 1882, Holborn Viaduct in London
became the site of the world's first public power station.
The Holborn Viaduct is currently having something of a makeover,
but back in 1881, when they were putting in the power station,
you would barely have noticed.
They didn't have to dig up the roads -
they just slung some cables along at rooftop height.
And the generating plant itself -
well, that was assembled in the basement of Edison's London office.
Edison's power station owed a huge debt to both Watt and Faraday.
A 125 horsepower steam engine drove a 27-tonne generator called Jumbo.
Finally, the workout had been separated from the imaging in.
Domestic demand for power could now take off.
It was a modest beginning, and there were serious problems ahead.
But the days of flickering gaslight were clearly numbered,
and a golden age of electricity had begun.
After Michael Faraday discovered the power of electromagnetism
and the lightbulb was invented, the age of electricity was born.
As society began to understand electricity's potential,
They needed a lot more of it,
but existing systems just weren't up to the job.
It would take another genius to solve this particular problem,
as Mark has been finding out.
Faraday's electrical dynamo was a pioneering breakthrough,
'but it was limited by the engines that powered it.
'Early steam engines vibrated violently
'and broke down on an almost daily basis.'
It was clear that what was needed was a better, more reliable engine.
In 1883, Charles Parsons was in charge of the electrical generators
at Clarke, Chapman and Co.
Like every generator in the world,
they were powered by a reciprocating steam engine.
Vertical motion converted into rotary motion.
To Parsons, the inefficiencies of this two-step engine were obvious.
He wanted a one-step version.
Parsons knew it wouldn't be with a steam-driven piston engine.
He needed a pure rotary motion,
without the vibration that would damage and shake the windows
of the building surrounding.
He turned to the turbine.
The essential theory of a turbine is thousands of years old.
In a windmill, the energy of the wind works directly on the rotating parts
to create useful mechanical work.
Parsons' plan was to replace wind with high-pressure steam.
He was going to blast steam at the turbine,
causing it to rotate and spin an electrical dynamo.
there was scope to produce a lot of power.
Existing turbine designs were not powerful or fast enough
to generate electricity.
The obvious solution was to increase the amount of energy in,
but the metals available couldn't withstand the increased force.
So just adding more steam wasn't going to work.
It took a genius of invention to think differently.
This is Charles Parsons' original factory in Newcastle,
now run by Siemens,
'and they still make turbines here.'
So, Geoff, what did Parsons do?
The energy that's available in steam
is much higher than you have with windmill and air,
so he had to somehow control the efficiency
and control the stresses of the whole process.
So what he did was, rather than just use a single set of blades,
he decided if you had more than one wheel,
you could share the energy out between the two,
and the process would be more efficient
without the danger of overloading.
'But there was a problem.'
Any additional blades don't spin.
So what actually happened was,
as we put the air onto the first blades, it certainly pushed those,
but the air actually came out of the blades at the angle of the blade,
edge-on to the second wheel.
So it wasn't able to push on the centre wheel as well.
So he invented the stator.
Parsons realised that you had to put something between the two wheels,
to make the air direction change, so it approaches the second wheel...
Deflected back in the air.
..at the same angle as it approached the first.
Yeah, let's see if it works.
So now we've got the second wheel
working just as well as the first wheel,
cos what you've done is, you've created a turbine now,
not a windmill, and it's extracting the energy.
The simple idea of compounding rows of blades,
each row designed to work with ever decreasing pressures,
meant Parsons' turbine was able to extract far more energy
from the same volume of steam.
But when it comes to generating electricity,
if you want to make more, you have to go faster.
And Parsons' next problem was speed.
If we look at the blades on a real turbine,
we're going to see it's very similar to our model,
but the blades are now curved.
And the gap between the blades where the steam passes
is getting narrower.
So to go through a narrow gap, the steam has to go at a higher speed.
-I've brought one of these along.
-All right, OK.
If I blow it with an open mouth... Yes...
I can get it to go round a little bit,
but if I just narrow my mouth, same lung capacity...
So, yeah, it goes round much faster.
-So that's the same that's happening in the turbine blades.
As the gap narrows, the speed of the steam goes faster.
That's exactly right.
'Nearly 130 years later, we're still making turbines
'using exactly the same principles.'
Before Parsons, power stations were operating under 500 revs per minute.
His turbo generator could rotate at 4,800 revs per minute.
Finally, we could produce far more electricity.
He'd cracked it.
In 1884, just a year after he'd started working on the problem,
Parsons patented the compound turbine.
And the first one was installed just up the road from here,
lighting the streets and homes of Newcastle.
He'd succeeded in creating a small and efficient,
powerful rotary motion for the electrical dynamo,
and it's that turbine design that's still in use today
in power stations across the globe.
Thomas Newcomen built the first practical steam engine,
and James Watt improved it.
Michael Faraday unleashed the secrets of electricity,
and Charles Parsons showed how you can make huge amounts of it.
In just 300 years,
we've gone from six horsepower to six million horsepower.
All thanks to British invention.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Every time we switch on a light or boil a kettle we rely on power to do it. This reveals the fascinating chain of events that made such everyday miracles possible. It tells the story of the handful of extraordinary British inventors and inventions who helped build the modern world by understanding, harnessing and using power. Michael Mosley and academics Professor Mark Miodownik and Dr Cassie Newland tell the amazing story of three of the greatest and most transformative inventions of all time: the steam engine, the electrical generator and the steam turbine.
Our experts explain how these inventions came about by sparks of inventive genius and steady incremental improvements. They separate myth from reality in the lives of the great inventors and celebrate some of the most remarkable stories in British history.