In our age of fuel cells and electric cars, steam locomotives (and even gasoline-powered cars) might seem like horribly old technology. But take a broader view of history and you’ll see that even the oldest steam engine is a very modern invention indeed. Humans have been using tools to multiply their muscle power for something like 2.5 million years, but only in the last 300 years or so have we perfected the art of making “muscles”— engine-powered machines—that work all by themselves. Put it another way: humans have been without engines for over 99.9 percent of our existence on Earth!
Now we have engines, of course, we couldn’t possibly do without them. Who could imagine life without cars, trucks, ships, or planes—all of them propelled by powerful engines. And engines don’t just move us around the world, they help us radically reshape it. From bridges and tunnels to skyscrapers and dams, virtually every major building and structure people have made in the last couple of centuries has been built with the help of engines—cranes, diggers, dumper trucks, and bulldozers among them. Engines have also fueled the modern agricultural revolution: a vast proportion of all our food is now harvested or transported using engine power. Engines don’t make the world go round, but they’re involved in virtually everything else that happens on our planet. Let’s take a closer look at what they are and how they work!
An engine is a machine that turns the energy locked in fuel into force and motion. Coal is no obvious use to anyone: it’s dirty, old, rocky stuff buried underground. Burn it in an engine, however, and you can release the energy it contains to power factory machines, cars, boats, or locomotives. The same is true of other fuels such as natural gas, gasoline, wood, and peat. Since engines work by burning fuels to release heat, they’re sometimes called heat engines. The process of burning fuel involves a chemical reaction called combustion where the fuel burns in oxygen in the air to make carbon dioxide and steam. (Generally, engines make air pollution as well because the fuel isn’t always 100 percent pure and doesn’t burn perfectly cleanly.)
There are two main types of heat engines: external combustion and internal combustion:
Internal combustion engines are generally far more efficient than external combustion engines because no energy is wasted transmitting heat from a fire and boiler to the cylinder; everything happens in one place.
Engines use pistons and cylinders, so the power they produce is a continual back-and-forth, push-and-pull, or reciprocating motion. Trouble is, many machines (and virtually all vehicles) rely on wheels that turn round and round—in other words, rotational motion. There are various different ways of turning reciprocating motion into rotational motion (or vice-versa). If you’ve ever watched a steam engine chuffing along, you’ll have noticed how the wheels are driven by a crank and connecting rod: a simple lever-linkage that connects one side of a wheel to a piston so the wheel turns around as the piston pumps back and forth.
An alternative way to convert reciprocating into rotational motion is to use gears. This is what brilliant Scottish engineer James Watt (1736–1819) decided to do in 1781 when he discovered the crank mechanism he needed to use in his improved design of steam engine was, in fact, already protected by a patent. Watt’s design is known as a sun and planet gear) and consists of two or more gear wheels, one of which (the planet) is pushed up and down by the piston rod, moving around the other gear (the Sun), and causing it to rotate.
Some engines and machines need to turn rotary motion into reciprocating motion. For that, you need something that works in the opposite way to a crankshaft—namely a cam. A cam is a non-circular (typically egg-shaped) wheel, which has something like a bar resting on top of it. As the axle turns the wheel, the wheel makes the bar rise up and down. Can’t picture that? Try imagining a car whose wheels are egg-shaped. As it drives along, the wheels (cams) turn round as usual but the car body bounces up and down at the same time—so rotational motion produces reciprocating motion (bouncing) in the passengers!
The earliest steam engines were giant machines that filled entire buildings and they were typically used for pumping water from flooded mines. Pioneered by Englishman Thomas Newcomen (1663/4–1729) in the early 18th century, they had a single cylinder and a piston attached to a large beam that rocked back and forth. Steam was pumped into the cylinder forcing the piston to rise and the beam to move down. Then water was squirted into the cylinder, cooling the steam, creating a partial vacuum, and making the beam tilt back the other way. Beam engines were an important technological advance, but they were much too large, slow, and inefficient to power factory machines and trains.
In the 1760s, James Watt greatly improved Newcomen’s steam engine, making it smaller, more efficient, and more powerful—and effectively turning steam engines into more practical and affordable machines. Watt’s work led to stationary steam engines that could be used in factories and compact, moving engines that could power steam locomotives. Read more in our article on steam engines.
Not all external combustion engines are huge and inefficient. Scottish clergyman Robert Stirling (1790–1878) invented a very clever engine that has two cylinders with pistons powering two cranks driving a single wheel. One cylinder is kept permanently hot (heated by an external energy source that can be anything from a coal fire to a geothermal energy supply) while the other is kept permanently cold. The engine works by shuttling the same volume of gas (permanently sealed inside the engine) back and forth between the cylinders through a device called a regenerator, which helps to retain energy and greatly increases the engine’s efficiency. Find out more in our main article on Stirling engines.
In the mid-19th century, several European engineers including Frenchman Joseph Étienne Lenoir (1822–1900) and German Nikolaus Otto (1832–1891) perfected internal combustion engines that burned gasoline. It was a short step for Karl Benz (1844–1929) to hook up one of these engines to a three-wheeled carriage and make the world’s first gas-powered automobile. Read more in our article on car engines.
Later in the 19th century, another German engineer, Rudolf Diesel (1858–1913), realized he could make a much more powerful internal combustion engine that could run off all kinds of different fuels. Unlike gasoline engines, diesel engines compress fuel much more so it spontaneously bursts into flames and releases the heat energy locked inside it. Today, diesel engines are still the machines of choice for driving heavy vehicles such as trucks, ships, and construction machines, as well as many cars. Read more in our article on diesel engines.
One of the drawbacks of internal combustion engines is that they need cylinders, pistons, and a spinning crankshaft to harness their power: the cylinders are stationary while the pistons and crankshaft are constantly moving. A rotary engine is a radically different design of internal combustion engine in which the “cylinders” (which aren’t always cylinder shaped) rotate around what is effectively a stationary crankshaft. Although rotary engines date back to the 19th century, perhaps the best-known design is the relatively modern Wankel rotary engine, notably used in some Japanese Mazda cars. Wikipedia’s article on the Wankel rotary engine is a good introduction with a brilliant little animation.
The pioneers of engines were engineers, not scientists. Newcomen and Watt were hands-on, practical “doers” rather than head-scratching, theoretical thinkers. It wasn’t until Frenchman Nicolas Sadi Carnot (1796–1832) came along in 1824—well over a century after Newcomen built his first steam engine—that any attempt was made to understand the theory of how engines worked and how they could be improved from a truly scientific perspective. Carnot was interested in figuring out how engines could be made more efficient (in other words, how more energy could be obtained from the same amount of fuel). Instead of tinkering with a real steam engine and trying to improve it by trial and error (the kind of approach Watt had taken with Newcomen’s engine), he made himself a theoretical engine—on paper—and played around with math instead.
The Carnot heat engine is a fairly simple mathematical model of how the best possible piston and cylinder engine could operate in theory, by endlessly repeating four steps now called the Carnot cycle. We’re not going to go into the theory here, or the math (if you’re interested, see NASA’s Carnot Cycle page and the excellent Heat Engines: the Carnot Cycle page by Michael Fowler, which has a superb flash animation).
What is worth noting is the conclusion Carnot reached: the efficiency of an engine (real or theoretical) depends on the maximum and minimum temperatures between which it operates. Making the temperature of the fluid inside the cylinder higher at the start of the cycle makes it more efficient; making the temperature lower at the end of the cycle also makes it more efficient. In other words, a really efficient heat engine operates between the greatest possible temperature difference. That’s why real engines—in cars, trucks, jet planes, and space rockets—work at such enormously high temperatures (and why they have to be built from high-temperature materials such as alloys and ceramics). It’s also why things like steam turbines in power plants have to use cooling towers to cool their steam down as much as possible: that’s how they can get the most energy from the steam and produce the most electricity.