An In-depth Look at How Steam Engines Work and Their Impact on History

A steam powered locomotivec
Photo: iStock


The power of steam has had a significant impact on the history of humankind and the concept of how they work is fascinating. From the Industrial Revolution to the modern day, steam engines have been used to power the world in a variety of ways. 

In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at how steam engines work and the impact they’ve had on history. We’ll explore the science behind how steam is generated and how its energy is used to power machines. 

We’ll also discuss the various applications, from powering locomotives to generating electricity. By the end of this article, you’ll have a comprehensive understanding of the science, history, and impact of steam engines.


SS Savannah Hybrid Steamboat
SS Savannah. Half steamboat, half sailboat.

The first steam engines were used in the mid-17th century to pump water out of gold and silver mines. The first steam-powered ship, the SS Savannah was launched in 1819. However, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that steam engines were widely used for industrial production. 

While the first steam-powered locomotive was built in 1829, it wasn’t until the 1850s that railroads began to widely use them. 

The Industrial Revolution was a time of incredible innovation and growth in the mid-19th century. The invention of the steam engine during this period greatly contributed to its growth. 

Many of the machines and products we use every day were first developed during this period. Engines powered by steam were used to power textile mills and other industries. They drove a variety of machines, from looms to cranes. They were used to power the bellows (furnaces) for forges. Forges were used to make swords, knives, agricultural tools, and many other metal products.

How Steam is Generated

Before we can discuss how steam engines work, we first need to understand how the energy source for these engines is produced. 

Boiling Point

Steam is the result of water being heated past its boiling point. When water is heated past 212° F (100°C), it turns into a gas, which is steam. The result is that the volume of steam (the amount of space that a substance or object occupies) is always greater than that of water; therefore, it will want to push its way out of the container if the container is not large enough to hold it.

This is why it is recommended not to place aerosol spray cans near heating sources. The spray is in liquid form but if it is near a heating source and the liquid starts to boil and turns into steam, there is a chance that the can will explode since the steam needs to expand. 

The mechanism for Boiling the Water

Boilers are what are used to boil the water into steam. There are several types of boilers, but they all have one thing in common: they are enclosed vessels that contain water.

Steam boilers are used to power a variety of machines. The most well-known application was to power locomotives. As we mentioned above, when water is converted into steam, the steam will push its way out and if this force of pressure is harnessed in a way that it can be regulated, it becomes a source of energy that can become very useful. 

In the steam engine, there are openings in the boiler to let the steam out, and when this steam comes out, it becomes a force pressure on which anything it touches will have an effect; in other words, if there is a wheel barrel next to where the steam is thrust out, it will propel the wheel barrel quite a distance.

Enter the Piston

Diagram of a piston
Steam enters the cylinder (red pipe) and pushes the piston down. Steam stops and the piston moves back up. This cycle repeats itself until the process is stopped. Animation: Wikimedia Public Domain.

If the steam is connected to a piston, which is a cylindrical body inside a container (noted in green), usually metal that slides down when a force hits it (in this case steam), it will move, and if another object is connected to the piston, (where the white hole is at the bottom) such as a wheel, the piston will then move the wheel. 

Now picture a row of pistons set up to move when the power of the steam hits on it, it can then move any number of wheels. 

Pistons have an additional feature and that is their ability to move back up to the top of their cylinder once the force of the steam stops, and if this process is regulated so that the steam comes out at regular intervals, the wheels that the pistons are connected to will keep on rolling.

This is how steam locomotives work, not to mention steamboats and machinery in factories as you will read further on.

Steam engines are also used to generate electricity in power plants. When it is generated in a boiler and then forced through a turbine, it spins a wheel, which is connected to a generator. This generates electrical energy via electromagnetism (the creation of electric current by spinning magnets).

Applications of Steam Engines 


Steam Locomotive
Photo by 44833 on Pixabay

Locomotives were all the rage in the 19th and early 20th centuries and it was the most common application of steam engines during the Industrial Revolution.

They were used to pull freight and passenger trains and were especially useful for transporting goods over long distances since they were much more efficient than horse-drawn wagons.

Additionally, these trains were able to climb steep hills. 


Many people think that steam engines came into widespread use on land, but they were also used to power ships. Ships were initially powered by wind and muscle power, but when the power of steam came along, they were used to power commercial ships in the early 1800s.

Steam engines were used in larger ships, such as steamships, which sailed between Europe and the United States. A perfect example is the Titanic. Although it came to a tragic end it was a giant and beautiful steamship that traveled across the Atlantic and powered everything from the kitchen cooking appliances to the giant pistons that moved the ship.


Steam engines are used to power automobiles in two ways. Some steam cars use a steam engine to power the wheels. Others use steam to generate electricity that can be used to power an electric motor. Steam cars have a long history dating back to the early 1900s. They were used throughout the 20th century until they were largely replaced by internal combustion engines.


Another common use was to power factories. They were used to mass-produce goods, and the engines were used to power the machinery that was used to produce goods, such as lathes, looms, and other industrial machinery.

Modern-Day Uses of Steam Engines

As we progress into the 21st century, the employment of steam is still being used for various purposes. They are often used in remote areas, such as deserts and mountains, where electrical grids are not available. In these areas, steam engines generate electricity.

Power Generation

Electrical power plants are no exception and there are still power grids in the US and around the world that use steam to generate electricity. The steam used in a power plant is usually generated by burning coal or natural gas, which then drives the pumps that transport water uphill. 


The impact of steam engines on history can’t be overstated. It is estimated that steam engines powered about 90% of the world’s industrial production around the start of the 20th century, which greatly contributed to the growth of many industries.

The textile industry, for instance, could not have grown to its current size without the use of steam. They were used to power the looms that were necessary for producing textiles on a large scale. Steam engines also helped transform the iron and steel industry. Before the invention of steam engines, the iron was produced in small forges. Once steam engines were used in forges, iron production could be carried out at larger scales. It also contributed to the growth of agriculture by powering irrigation systems.




Black Holes – Most Massive and Most Distant

Illustration of a black hole
Illustration of a Black Hole Photo: iStock. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

Leave It Up to James Webb

In July 2023, astronomers discovered the most distant active supermassive black hole to date. This gravitational phenomenon is located in galaxy CEERS 1019, which is seen as it was when the universe was just 570 million years old. This is only 100 million years after the Big Bang, making it the earliest active supermassive black hole ever observed.

The Most Distant One – CEERS 1019

The black hole is also one of the least massive seen in the early universe, measuring the equivalent of about 9 million suns. This is much smaller than the supermassive black holes that are typically found in the centers of galaxies, which can weigh billions or even trillions of suns.

The discovery of this early black hole is baffling astronomers since it has been concluded that supermassive black holes form from the gravitational collapse of massive stars, but in this case, is not clear how a star could have formed so early in the universe and grown to be so massive in such a short time.

This raises questions about the evolution of galaxies. It is thought that supermassive black holes play a role in the formation and evolution of galaxies, but it is not clear how. The discovery of this black hole suggests that supermassive black holes may have been more common in the early universe than previously thought and that they may have played a more important role in the evolution of galaxies than we had realized.

Hopefully, it is a case where we have to back to the drawing board, but this black hole is definitely something where additional thought needs to be done where there may be other entities at work here that we just don’t know about – yet!

The Big One

Although the James Webb telescope is bringing never-before-seen wonders to our eyes, the famous Hubble is not without merit.

300 million light-years away at the heart of the Coma Cluster lies one of the largest black holes ever discovered. The Coma Cluster is a large collection of over 1,000 galaxies, which is quite amazing in its own right.

Of these thousands of galaxies is the elliptical supergiant NGC 4889, discovered in 1785 by the British astronomer Frederick William Herschel. 

NGC 4889 shines as the largest and brightest galaxy and its supermassive black hole is breaking all kinds of records. In comparison, the mass of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy is about four million times that of our Sun. The mass of the black hole at the center of NGC 4889 is around twenty-one billion times the mass of our Sun.

Early in its life, astronomers would classify the black hole as a quasar. A quasar is a massive and remote celestial object, releasing large amounts of energy. It is believed that quasars themselves contain massive black holes and are just a stage in the evolution of some galaxies.

At this time as a quasar, NGC 4889’s black hole was devouring all the stars, gas, and galactic dust in its path. This massive meal only fueled the black hole into forming an accretion disc that orbits the black hole and accelerates the black hole’s gravitational pull. The galactic dinner is heated up to millions of degrees and expelled around the black hole up to a thousand times the energy output of our own Milky Way. 

Once the supermassive black hole’s appetite was filled and the lavish meal finished, the black hole fell into a deep and dormant state that it is currently in. The environment of the surrounding galaxy is so peaceful that stars are forming from the remaining gas that’s calmly orbiting the black hole.

Quasars and black holes continue to remain mysterious objects to astronomers and scientists. Luckily with new images thanks to various telescopes around the world astronomers can further their knowledge of these objects. Even though it is impossible to directly see a black hole since light can’t escape its gravitational pull, the mass of a black hole can still be determined. Astronomers in Hawaii at the W. M. Observatory and the Gemini North Telescope measured the velocity of stars moving around the center of NG 4889. These instruments determined the massive supermassive black hole. 


The Space Shuttle Program

Space Shuttle Columbia from its 16th flight landing at Kennedy Space Center
Space Shuttle Columbia from its 16th flight landing at Kennedy Space Center Photo: Wikimedia Public Domain

The End of a Successful Era in Space and the Beginning of a New One

In 1975, the Apollo space program came to an end, along with it a legacy of unparalleled achievements, but this was only the beginning.

NASA was already working on a new venture for a more efficient spacecraft that they could reuse instead of relying on the disposable rockets that cost them billions of dollars to build each time.

This idea of a reusable rocket that could launch astronauts into space, but dock and land like an airplane were well-accepted for future space travel.

Enter the Space Shuttle Program

Early space shuttle concept
Early space shuttle concept. Photo: Wikimedia Public Domain

In 1972, President Nixon announced that NASA would develop a reusable space transportation system (STS). They decided that the shuttle would consist of an orbiter attached to solid rocket boosters and an external fuel tank. This design was considered safer and more cost-effective. 

One of the first obstacles was to design a spacecraft that didn’t use ablative heat shields, which subsequently burned up each time the shuttle re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.

For the shuttle to be reusable, a different strategy would have to be initiated. The designers came up with an idea to overlay the craft with insulating ceramic tiles that would absorb the heat of reentry, without causing any danger to the astronauts. 

The First Flights

The first of four test flights began in 1981, leading to operational flights starting in 1982. They were used on a total of 135 missions from 1981 to 2011. The launchpad used was the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

Like the previous Saturn V rocket, the Space Shuttle had different components of its own, which included the Orbiter Vehicle (OV), a pair of recoverable solid rocket boosters (SRBs), and the expendable external tank (ET), containing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as fuel. 

The Shuttle was launched vertically, the same as any rocket in its category would launch, using the two SRBs to jettison it. The SRBs operated in a parallel fashion by utilizing the fuel from the ET. 

Once the mission had been completed, the shuttle would land similar to a jet aircraft on the runway of the Shuttle Landing Facility of KSC or Rogers Dry Lake in Edwards Air Force Base, California. After landing at the base, the orbiter was then flown back to the KSC on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, which was a specially modified Boeing 747.

Tragedy Hits

Although the accomplishments that the shuttle program has achieved are beyond expectations, there were two unfortunate events during its time.

Challenger January 28, 1986

Shortly after liftoff, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded f the U.S. space shuttle orbiter Challenger, claiming the lives of seven astronauts.

Among those who were lost were teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe, commander Francis (Dick) Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, mission specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Ronald McNair, and Hughes Aircraft engineer Gregory Jarvis.

Space Shuttle Crew
The crew of Space Shuttle mission STS-51-L poses for their official portrait on November 15, 1985. In the back row from left to right: are Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair. Photo: Wikimedia Public Domain

Columbia Feb 1, 2003

It was the final mission of Columbia. Seven crew members lost their lives when the shuttle burned up over the state of Texas during its reentry on Feb 1, 2003.

NASA Columbia Crew
The STS-107 crew included, from the left, Mission Specialist David Brown, Commander Rick Husband, Mission Specialists Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, and Michael Anderson, Pilot William McCool, and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. (NASA photo. via Wikipedia)


The Big Bang Theory – A Technical Overview

Illustration of the Big Bang
Photo: Pixabay

No, we’re not talking about the TV show. We are talking about the real thing. A phenomenon that has baffled scientists and astronomers for millenniums.

Bang Zoom!

It’s the Big Bang that has originated as a pinpoint (yes that small!) of intensely hot, immensely dense energy that appeared out of apparently nowhere. 

It’s the Little Things

If we may steal an excerpt from the bible – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth”. Now allow us to extrapolate this scientifically to mean that there existed an incomprehensively immeasurable point that at some point in time (we say time here as a reference, but it didn’t exist yet), this immensely tiny entity planted the seed of what we call the universe. 

And the Single Things

The origin of the Big Bang is where this tiny region, called a singularity, is where the density of matter, or more technically described as the curvature of spacetime, becomes infinite. 

Confused? You’re not alone, so let’s try defining it another way. A singularity represents the phenomenon that the pull of gravity becomes so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape it.

Still confused? How about this explanation? A singularity is where all matter and energy are concentrated into one single point thanks to the force of gravity.

We have seen this occurrence with the existence of black holes.

NASA illustration of the Big Bang
NASA illustration of the Big Bang Photo: NASA

Be Cool

As this hot area began to cool down, the first photons, namely, quarks and leptons condensed out of the fizzing vacuum, like a mist on a cold window to form a quark-gluon plasma sea. (For an illustration of how small these entities are, visit The Scale of the Universe and keep cruising down through the world of the micro-universe, until you reach quarks, 10-18 meters in size).

Time Has Arrived But Atom is Nowhere to Be Found

After one-millionth of a second, the quarks combined into hadrons, primarily protons, and neutrons, while vast amounts of matter and antimatter wiped each other out, leaving only a billionth of the original material, along with vast quantities of gamma rays. About a second after the birth of the universe, its temperature dropped enough to crystallize whizzing neutrinos from the photons. 

Nucleosynthesis started to materialize, with protons and neutrons joining to form the nuclei of helium, deuterium, and lithium.

Minutes later, matter consisted simply of three parts hydrogen to one part helium. The universe was expanding incredibly fast, and after a few hours, there was no longer the density of neutrons to allow any heavier nuclei to form. 

Fast Forward a Few Thousand Years

When the universe was an estimated 377,000 years old, it finally became cool enough for electrons to settle into orbits around atomic nuclei.

For the next 100 million years everything remained dark as the vast ionized clouds of hydrogen and helium expanded. Eventually, however, the photons were set free from the plasma, and the infant universe was unveiled in all its glory.

Any Body Home?

Photo of a nebula
Nebula forming stars and planets. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The first bodies to emerge from the chaos of the early universe were quasars. The most powerful and luminous objects in the universe, early active galaxies, built around young supermassive black holes, forming slight inconsistencies in the otherwise uniform expansion of the universe. 

Soon after, inside and outside of these protogalaxies, Nebulas which are large clouds of the ingredients of hydrogen and helium create stars and planets that start to explode into life. After they exploded, they seeded newly minted elements into the mix. 

And the Cycle of Life Begins

For the next 500,000 years, until the universe’s first billionth birthday, quasars and early stars hatched, lived, died, and were recycling earlier generations and pouring out intense radiation that re-ionized their surroundings. Ninety-nine percent of all matter in the universe remains in the form of fizzy ionized plasma from this time.