Before the 1800s, most homes, workplaces and streets were lit by candles, oil lamps or rushlights (rush plants dried and dipped in grease or fat). But these gave off a very dim light and could be smoky. In 1792, the Scottish engineer and inventor William Murdoch (1754-1839) made an extraordinary discovery which would transform not only lighting, but heating, cooking and all sorts of other activity and industry. Experimenting in his back garden in Cornwall, he found a way to produce gas, by heating coal in a closed container and collecting and cleaning the smoke. He piped the gas into his house, made holes in the pipes and lit the gas there. This produced a light much brighter and safer than from candles or oil lamps.
The atmospheric engine was invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712. It was the first machine to be powered by steam and was largely used to pump water out of mines. Hundreds of these engines were made and used all over Britain and Europe in the 1700s. They became known simply as the Newcomen Engine and helped pave the way for the Industrial revolution.
James Watt’s ingenious improvements to the steam engine transformed this relatively simple technology, making it more efficient and adapting it so it could be used to turn wheels. His ideas revolutionised steam power, literally driving the industrial revolution and transforming the British landscape and the lives of its people.
This gilded bronze statue, known as the ‘Golden Boys’ (and also the ‘Carpet Salesmen’!) honours Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch. They are shown studying steam engine plans. Together these three revolutionised the steam engine – the technology that would literally drive the industrial revolution.