Age of Invention: Perpetual Motion
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Part II of Why wasn’t the steam engine invented earlier? is a little closer to completion, but not quite there yet — I still have a lot of loose ends to tie up, and leads to follow, some of which I’ll mention here. Essentially, the more possible early atmospheric engines I stumble across, the more I have to dig deeper to find out all I can about them, often leading to still more potential engines to then look into.
A handful have been looked into before by historians of steam engines. The second Marquess of Worcester, for example, has been the subject of all sorts of myths since even the 1720s. As one legend goes, Thomas Savery is even supposed to have bought up all the copies of Worcester’s books, to prevent anyone doubting his claim to be the engine’s inventor. Other early candidates, like Samuel Morland, aren’t as well-known, but have at least popped up from time to time. Morland has had a biography written about him, and has even featured in fiction. A couple of years ago I was delighted, when reading Iain Pears’s novel An Instance of the Fingerpost, to meet Morland surrounded by his engines.
Most of the time, however, the potential leads have hardly been noticed at all — at least not in the context of water-raising machinery. Some of these candidates should even have been obvious, like the Marquess of Worcester’s assistant, the Danish engineer Kaspar Kalthoff. Worcester even credited him as his master mechanic! But weirdly, hardly any work has been done on Kalthoff at all. The last paper to mention him in its title is from 1947, and pretty much anything written since only mentions him obliquely, or in different contexts (he also designed a repeating rifle, for example, and was a famous grinder of microscope and telescope lenses in the Netherlands). Nearly every account of Kalthoff is extremely vague, and on many details often wrong. So there’s been a lot of digging to do to reconstruct his life and work out what he actually invented.
Other times, the names of more famous figures crop up, like William Petty — not a name that will get much recognition from the public, or even from history buffs, but certainly known to many historians for his many seventeenth-century writings on economics and statistics. There’s even a huge collection of his papers available covering his activities from the 1670s onwards. Yet what’s gone almost entirely unnoticed is that c.1649 he had also developed a steam-using engine — one apparently very similar, though not identical, to Kalthoff’s. I’ve been following a lot of potential leads to try to work out exactly how it operated, but with little luck so far.
And then there are the time-consuming dead-ends. I spent pretty much the entirety of Tuesday tracking down mentions of a few other water-raising machines that were mentioned alongside Kalthoff’s or Petty’s as potential rivals. One, by Sir Edward Ford, was even installed in London in 1656, pumping water from the Thames to provide water for the city. Eventually, however, I discovered that it was just a series of ordinary suction pumps driven by two horses. A French visitor had very helpfully sketched it in 1663:
I also spent another half a day trying to track down a competing engine by a certain William Wheeler. Although I already suspected that Wheeler’s machine didn’t use heat as its power source, I was intrigued by a mention of Petty comparing its potential applications to both Kalthoff’s and his own. But it turned out that Wheeler had designed, well, a wheel…
And then there are the “perpetual motion” machines. One of the curious things about Petty’s and Kalthoff’s engines are that they are sometimes referred to as such, despite the fact they had obvious external power sources. The reason for this, I think, is partly to do with their source of inspiration — I’ll explain this fully when I write up the Part II — and partly because “perpetual motion” did not always mean what we think it means today.