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Steam Engine Quotes (30 quotes)

Coloured lithograph, steam engine & pump irrigating field.  Wellcome Library, London CC BY 4.0. ICV No 24929BL
A steam engine, with a pump irrigating fields. (source)

About 6 or 8 years ago My Ingenious friend Mr John Robinson having [contrived] conceived that a fire engine might be made without a Lever—by Inverting the Cylinder & placing it above the mouth of the pit proposed to me to make a model of it which was set about by having never Compleated & I [being] having at that time Ignorant little knoledge of the machine however I always thought the Machine Might be applied to [more] other as valuable purposes [than] as drawing Water.
Entry in notebook (1765). The bracketed words in square brackets were crossed out by Watt. in Eric Robinson and Douglas McKie (eds.), Partners in Science: Letters of James Watt and Joseph Black (1970), 434.
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Already the steam-engine works our mines, impels our ships, excavates our ports and our rivers, forges iron, fashions wood, grinds grain, spins and weaves our cloths, transports the heaviest burdens, etc. It appears that it must some day serve as a universal motor, and be substituted for animal power, waterfalls, and air currents.
'Réflexions sur la puissance motrice du feu' (1824) translated by R.H. Thurston in Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, and on Machines Fitted to Develop that Power (1890), 38.
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Ask a follower of Bacon what [science] the new philosophy, as it was called in the time of Charles the Second, has effected for mankind, and his answer is ready; “It has lengthened life; it has mitigated pain; it has extinguished diseases; it has increased the fertility of the soil; it has given new securities to the mariner; it has furnished new arms to the warrior; it has spanned great rivers and estuaries with bridges of form unknown to our fathers; it has guided the thunderbolt innocuously from heaven to earth; it has lighted up the night with the splendour of the day; it has extended the range of the human vision; it has multiplied the power of the human muscles; it has accelerated motion; it has annihilated distance; it has facilitated intercourse, correspondence, all friendly offices, all dispatch of business; it has enabled man to descend to the depths of the sea, to soar into the air, to penetrate securely into the noxious recesses of the earth, to traverse the land in cars which whirl along without horses, to cross the ocean in ships which run ten knots an hour against the wind. These are but a part of its fruits, and of its first-fruits; for it is a philosophy which never rests, which has never attained, which is never perfect. Its law is progress. A point which yesterday was invisible is its goal to-day, and will be its starting-point to-morrow.”
From essay (Jul 1837) on 'Francis Bacon' in Edinburgh Review. In Baron Thomas Babington Macaulay and Lady Trevelyan (ed.) The Works of Lord Macaulay Complete (1871), Vol. 6, 222.
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Even the development of the steam engine owed but little to the advancement of science.
Science and Common Sense (1951), 299-300.

I had gone on a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon. I had entered the Green [of Glasgow] by the gate at the foot of Charlotte Street—had passed the old washing-house. 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 as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder. I then saw that I must get rid of the condensed steam and injection water if I used a jet, as in Newcomen's engine. Two ways of doing this occurred to me. First, the water might be run off by a descending pipe, if an outlet could be got at the depth of 35 or 36 feet, and any air might be extracted by a small pump. The second was to make the pump large enough to extract both water and air. ... I had not walked further than the Golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.
[In Robert Hart's words, a recollection of the description of Watt's moment of inspiration, in May 1765, for improving Thomas Newcomen's steam engine.]
In Robert Hart, 'Reminiscences of James Watt' (read 2 Nov 1857), Transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society (1859), Vol. 1, 1. Note that these are not the verbatim words of James Watt, but are only a recollection of them by Robert Hart, who is quoting as best he can from memory of a conversation he and his brother had with James Watt that took place over 43 years previously. In his Reminiscences, Hart explains, “I have accordingly thrown together the following brief narrative:— As these meetings took place forty-three years since, many observations that were made at the time may have escaped me at present; yet, when the same subjects are touched on, I have as distinct recollection of his treatment of them as if it were yesterday.”
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I have been branded with folly and madness for attempting what the world calls impossibilities, and even from the great engineer, the late James Watt, who said ... that I deserved hanging for bringing into use the high-pressure engine. This has so far been my reward from the public; but should this be all, I shall be satisfied by the great secret pleasure and laudable pride that I feel in my own breast from having been the instrument of bringing forward new principles and new arrangements of boundless value to my country, and however much I may be straitened in pecuniary circumstances, the great honour of being a useful subject can never be taken from me, which far exceeds riches.
From letter to Davies Gilbert, written a few months before Trevithick's last illness. Quoted in Francis Trevithick, Life of Richard Trevithick: With an Account of his Inventions (1872), Vol. 2, 395-6.
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I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have—POWER.
About the improved steam engine invented by James Watt and brought into production at Boulton’s manufactory.
Entry for Friday 22 March 1776. In George Birkbeck-Hill (ed.), Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1934-50), Vol. 2, 459.
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If human thought is a growth, like all other growths, its logic is without foundation of its own, and is only the adjusting constructiveness of all other growing things. A tree cannot find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine-time.
Lo! (1931, 1941), 20.
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In science its main worth is temporary, as a stepping-stone to something beyond. Even the Principia, as Newton with characteristic modesty entitled his great work, is truly but the beginning of a natural philosophy, and no more an ultimate work, than Watt’s steam-engine, or Arkwright's spinning-machine.
Co-author with his brother Augustus William Hare Guesses At Truth, By Two Brothers: Second Edition: With Large Additions (1848), Second Series, 46. (The volume is introduced as “more than three fourths new.” This quote is identified as by Julius; Augustus had died in 1833.)
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It is arguable whether the human race have been gainers by the march of science beyond the steam engine. Electricity opens a field of infinite conveniences to ever greater numbers, but they may well have to pay dearly for them. But anyhow in my thought I stop short of the internal combustion engine which has made the world so much smaller. Still more must we fear the consequences of entrusting a human race so little different from their predecessors of the so-called barbarous ages such awful agencies as the atomic bomb. Give me the horse.
Address to the Royal College of Surgeons (10 Jul 1951). Collected in Stemming the Tide: Speeches 1951 and 1952 (1953), 91.
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It is sunlight in modified form which turns all the windmills and water wheels and the machinery which they drive. It is the energy derived from coal and petroleum (fossil sunlight) which propels our steam and gas engines, our locomotives and automobiles. ... Food is simply sunlight in cold storage.
In New Dietetics: What to Eat and How (1921), 29.
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It is worthy of note that nearly all that has been done for the improvement of the steam engine has been accomplished, not by men educated in colleges or technical schools, but by laborers, mechanics, and engine-men. There seem to be instances where the mechanical instinct takes precedence over the higher powers of the mind, in efficiency in harnessing the forces of nature and causing them to do our work.
In paper 'Stephenson and Transportation' (1916), collected in Francis Edgar Stanley, Theories Worth Having and Other Papers (1919), 66-67.
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James Watt patented his steam engine on the eve of the American Revolution, consummating a relationship between coal and the new Promethean spirit of the age, and humanity made its first tentative steps into an industrial way of life that would, over the next two centuries, forever change the world.
In The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth (2002), 2.
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Neither had Watt of the Steam engine a heroic origin, any kindred with the princes of this world. The princes of this world were shooting their partridges… While this man with blackened fingers, with grim brow, was searching out, in his workshop, the Fire-secret.
From Chartism, collected in James Wood (ed.) The Carlyle Reader (1894), 73.
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Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power—that is, power to move things. Take any given space of the earth's surface— for instance, Illinois; and all the power exerted by all the men, and beasts, and running-water, and steam, over and upon it, shall not equal the one hundredth part of what is exerted by the blowing of the wind over and upon the same space. And yet it has not, so far in the world's history, become proportionably valuable as a motive power. It is applied extensively, and advantageously, to sail-vessels in navigation. Add to this a few windmills, and pumps, and you have about all. … As yet, the wind is an untamed, and unharnessed force; and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made, will be the taming, and harnessing of it.
Lecture 'Discoveries and Inventions', (1860) in Discoveries and Inventions (1915).
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Science owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to science.
Attributed (1917 ?). The quote appears in various books without source citation, for example, in Charles Coulston Gillispie, The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas (1960), 357. If you know a primary source, please contact Webmaster.
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Soon shall thy arm, UNCONQUER’D STEAM! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying-chariot through the fields of air.
From 'Botanic Garden' (1781), part 1, canto 1, lines 289-92. The Botanic Garden, with Philosophical Notes (4th Ed., 1799). At the time Erasmus Darwin penned his poem, he would have been aware of a limited history of steam power: Edward Someset, 2nd Marquis of Worcester steam pump (1663), Thomas Savery's steam pump (1698), Thomas Newcomen atmospheric engine (1712), Matthew Boulton and James Watt first commercial steam engine (1776). Watt did not build his first 'double acting' engine, which enabled using a flywheel, until 1783 (two years after Darwin's poem). It was also after Darwin's poem was written that the first steamboat, using paddles, the Pyroscaphe steamed up a French river on 15 Jul 1783. Darwin's predicted future for the steam engine car did not come to pass until Richard Trevithick tested his Camborne road engine (1801). The Wrights' first airplane flight came a century later, in 1903.
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The animal frame, though destined to fulfill so many other ends, is as a machine more perfect than the best contrived steam-engine—that is, is capable of more work with the same expenditure of fuel.
'On Matter, Living Force, and Heat' (1847). In The Scientific Papers of James Prescott Joule (1884), Vol. 1, 271.
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The mighty steam-engine has its germ in the simple boiler in which the peasant prepares his food. The huge ship is but the expansion of the floating leaf freighted with its cargo of atmospheric dust; and the flying balloon is but the infant's soap-bubble lightly laden and overgrown. But the Telescope, even in its most elementary form, embodies a novel and gigantic idea, without an analogue in nature, and without a prototype in experience
Stories of Inventors and Discoverers in Science and the Useful Arts (1860), 145.
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The production of motion in the steam engine always occurs in circumstances which it is necessary to recognize, namely when the equilibrium of caloric is restored, or (to express this differently) when caloric passes from the body at one temperature to another body at a lower temperature.
'Réflexions sur la Puissance Motrice du Feu et sur les Machines Propres a Développer cette Puissance' (1824). Trans. Robert Fox, Reflexions on the Motive Power of Fire (1986), 64.
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The steam-engine I call fire-demon and great; but it is nothing to the invention of fire.
From Chartism, collected in James Wood (ed.) The Carlyle Reader (1894), 74.
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The steam-engine in its manifold applications, the crime-decreasing gas-lamp, the lightning conductor, the electric telegraph, the law of storms and rules for the mariner's guidance in them, the power of rendering surgical operations painless, the measures for preserving public health, and for preventing or mitigating epidemics,—such are among the more important practical results of pure scientific research, with which mankind have been blessed and States enriched.
President's Address to the British Association, Leeds (1858). In Charles W. Vincent and James Mason (eds.), The Year-book of Facts in Science and Art (1859), title page.
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The train, panting up past lonely farms,
Fed by the fireman's restless arms…
Past cotton grass and moorland boulder,
Shoveling white steam over her shoulder.
Poem written as narration for documentary film "Night Mail" (1936), made for the British Post Office.
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There are many points in the history of an invention which the inventor himself is apt to overlook as trifling, but in which posterity never fail to take a deep interest. The progress of the human mind is never traced with such a lively interest as through the steps by which it perfects a great invention; and there is certainly no invention respecting which this minute information will be more eagerly sought after, than in the case of the steam-engine.
Quoted in The Origin and Progress of the Mechanical Inventions of James Watt (1854), Vol.1, 4.
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Those who admire modern civilization usually identify it with the steam engine and the electric telegraph.
In 'Maxims for Revolutionists: Civilization', in Man and Superman (1903), 241.
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Those who understand the steam engine and the electric telegraph spend their lives in trying to replace them with something better.
In 'Maxims for Revolutionists: Civilization', in Man and Superman (1903), 241.
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True science is distinctively the study of useless things. For the useful things will get studied without the aid of scientific men. To employ these rare minds on such work is like running a steam engine by burning diamonds.
From 'Lessons from the History of Science: The Scientific Attitude' (c.1896), in Collected Papers (1931), Vol. 1, 32.
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We have also here an acting cause to account for that balance so often observed in nature,—a deficiency in one set of organs always being compensated by an increased development of some others—powerful wings accompanying weak feet, or great velocity making up for the absence of defensive weapons; for it has been shown that all varieties in which an unbalanced deficiency occurred could not long continue their existen The action of this principle is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor of the steam engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident; and in like manner no unbalanced deficiency in the animal kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself felt at the very first step, by rendering existence difficult and extinction almost sure soon to follow.
In 'On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type', Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society, Zoology (1858), 3, 61-62.
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[I predict] the electricity generated by water power is the only thing that is going to keep future generations from freezing. Now we use coal whenever we produce electric power by steam engine, but there will be a time when there’ll be no more coal to use. That time is not in the very distant future. … Oil is too insignificant in its available supply to come into much consideration.
As quoted in 'Electricity Will Keep The World From Freezing Up', New York Times (12 Nov 1911), SM4.
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[W]e pity our fathers for dying before steam and galvanism, sulphuric ether and ocean telegraphs, photograph and spectrograph arrived, as cheated out of their human estate.
'Works and Days', Emerson's Complete Works (1883), 152.
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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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- 100 -
Sophie Germain
Gertrude Elion
Ernest Rutherford
James Chadwick
Marcel Proust
William Harvey
Johann Goethe
John Keynes
Carl Gauss
Paul Feyerabend
- 90 -
Antoine Lavoisier
Lise Meitner
Charles Babbage
Ibn Khaldun
Ralph Emerson
Robert Bunsen
Frederick Banting
Andre Ampere
Winston Churchill
- 80 -
John Locke
Bronislaw Malinowski
Thomas Huxley
Alessandro Volta
Erwin Schrodinger
Wilhelm Roentgen
Louis Pasteur
Bertrand Russell
Jean Lamarck
- 70 -
Samuel Morse
John Wheeler
Nicolaus Copernicus
Robert Fulton
Pierre Laplace
Humphry Davy
Thomas Edison
Lord Kelvin
Theodore Roosevelt
Carolus Linnaeus
- 60 -
Francis Galton
Linus Pauling
Immanuel Kant
Martin Fischer
Robert Boyle
Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
James Watson
William Shakespeare
- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
Niels Bohr
Nikola Tesla
Rachel Carson
Max Planck
Henry Adams
Richard Dawkins
Werner Heisenberg
Alfred Wegener
John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
Edward Wilson
Johannes Kepler
Gustave Eiffel
Giordano Bruno
JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
Leonardo DaVinci
David Hume
- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
Rudolf Virchow
Richard Feynman
James Hutton
Alexander Fleming
Emile Durkheim
Benjamin Franklin
Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Hooke
Charles Kettering
- 20 -
Carl Sagan
James Maxwell
Marie Curie
Rene Descartes
Francis Crick
Michael Faraday
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Francis Bacon
Galileo Galilei
- 10 -
John Watson
Rosalind Franklin
Michio Kaku
Isaac Asimov
Charles Darwin
Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Isaac Newton

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