Steam Engine

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Steam Engine

A piston steam engine, pictured here, is pretty typical in locomotives.

©HowStuffWorks

Like the revved-up V-8 engines and high-speed jet planes that fascinate us now, steam-powered technology once was cutting-edge, too, and it played a giant role in supporting the Industrial Revolution. Before this era, people used horse-and-buggy carriages to get around, and mining practices were also labor-intensive and inefficient.

James Watt, a Scottish engineer, didn't develop the steam engine, but he did dream up a more efficient version in the 1760s, adding a separate condenser and forever changing the mining industry. (Want to know more? Read "How Steam Technology Works.")

At first, some inventors used the steam engine to pump and remove water from mining holes, which led to better access to resources below. As these engines gained popularity, engineers wondered how they could be improved. Watt's version of the steam engine didn't have to cool down after each stroke, which enhanced mining practices at the time.

Others wondered: Rather than transporting raw materials, goods and even people by horse, what if a steam-powered machine could get the job done?

Similar thinking inspired inventors to explore the potential of steam engines outside of the mining world. Watt's modification of the steam engine led to other developments of the Industrial Revolution, including the first steam-powered locomotives and boats.

Our next invention may be lesser known, but it certainly packs a punch.

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