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Thursday, 29 December 2011

Papin's engine

Scientific American, Volume XXXVI., No. 8, February 24, 1877
It is a matter of history that, as early as 1688, Denis Papin, Professor of Physics and Mathematics at the University of Marburg, proposed to substitute steam for powder in the engine invented by Huyghens, and that in 1695 he published a description of several new inventions, in which steam played an important part. The Elector Carl of Hesse-Cassel, was anxious to be free from the annoyances and impositions practised upon his boatmen by the authorities at Münden, and he proposed to avoid that city by constructing a canal connecting the Weser with the river that flowed through Cassel. Much of the work was accomplished, and the half finished line of the canal can be traced even at the present day. Papin was authorized to build a powerful steam pump by which the supply of water was to be regulated. A working model of this pump was completed; and the Elector was on the point of visiting the laboratory to witness its operation, when a fearful explosion frightened the workmen, and afforded an opportunity for enemies to intrigue for the expulsion of Papin from the country. The model was preserved for a long time in Cassel; but at the time of the French invasion, it disappeared, and no trace of it has since been found. In writing about his inventions, Papin says, in 1695: "It would occupy too much space for me to describe in what manner this principle could be applied to removing water from mines, throwing bombs, sailing against the wind, and for many other similar purposes; everyone according to his wants can imagine the constructions that could be made. I cannot, however, refrain from remarking how much preferable this power would be to oars for those whose business calls them to the sea." And further on he says: "The steam cylinders could be employed for a great variety of purposes." One of the cylinders, which was to form a part of the pump, was cast at the foundry in Cassel, and after various vicissitudes has finally become the property of the Historical Museum in that city, where it will be preserved, with jealous care, from any further injury. During the recent exhibition of philosophical instruments in London, this remnant of Papin's invention played an important part, it having been generously loaned by the authorities for that occasion. After the flight of Papin from Germany, the cylinder was used as a receptacle for iron turnings and borings in the royal works; and after the destruction of those works by fire, it came into the possession of Henschel, the founder of one of the most extensive locomotive works in Germany. This man fully appreciated the value of the historical relic; and when I visited him at the works, twenty-five years ago, he pointed out with pride to me the inscription on its side, "Papin's Cylinder," and said that he intended to have it placed upon a solid pedestal near the gate. His grandson has since presented it to the city, and its preservation from destruction or sale is now secured. A copy of the drawing made by Papin of the pump of which this cylinder was to form a part, and which was published in 1695, has recently appeared in Dingler's Journal, and I send it to you, hoping that you will have it engraved and perpetuated in your valuable paper. It is a peculiar combination of Savery's invention and Papin's piston engine, suggested for another purpose, and is a decided improvement on Huyghens' powder engine.


A is the boiler for the generation of the steam, provided with a safety valve (an invention of Papin). On opening the stopcock, C, the steam passes through B into the cylinder, D, and by its expansion drives the plunger, E, against the water contained in the cylinder, D, which is thus forced into the chamber, F, compressing strongly the air, which in turn expels the water through the pipe, G, to the height desired. K is a funnel for the fresh supply of water, and at I and H are valves opening upwards and downwards. After the condensation of the steam in D, a renewed supply of water, through K, forces the plunger, E, to the top of the cylinder, ready for the next action of steam. The strokes of such a pump could not be frequent, and it would not compare very favorably with the wonderful machinery exhibited in Philadelphia last summer; but it contains the germ of the idea, and is worthy of all honor. Having often seen it stated that Papin had invented a steamboat, I resolved during a recent visit to Germany to investigate the matter, and especially to search for the correspondence between Papin and Leibnitz in the library at Hanover. It will be borne in mind that two hundred years ago, on December 4, 1676, Leibnitz was appointed to take charge of the library in Hanover, and that he remained in this position until his death in 1716. He bequeathed his manuscripts to the library; and as he had the habit of writing upon all manner of loose scraps of paper, it has cost much labor to assort and classify them.

On making my application to the librarian to be permitted to see the correspondence between Papin and Leibnitz, my request was at once granted; and a table having been assigned me, I was able to examine these precious relics at my leisure. I was also shown a copy of an original treatise on the steam engine by Papin, which contained numerous marginal notes by Leibnitz. In one place, Leibnitz criticized Papin's method for condensing steam, and makes a drawing on the margin, showing a piston and valve which he thought would be more practical. It is somewhat remarkable that the Germans have not caused a fac-simile of this little volume to be published. After considerable search, I found a copy of the original letter addressed by Papin to Leibnitz in 1707, asking Leibnitz to assist him in obtaining the consent of the Hanoverian Government to navigate the river Weser with a sidewheel steamboat. The letter was dated July 7, 1707, and contained among other interesting passages the following sentence: "The new invention will enable one or two men to accomplish more effect than several hundred oarsmen." It is evident that Leibnitz was deeply impressed by Papin's letter, and he supported the simple and reasonable request contained in it by the following petition addressed to the Councillors of State. This communication from Leibnitz bears two indorsements, one by the clerk of the council, "pro memoria respectfully, in reference to the passage of a ship from the river Fulda into the Weser;" the other is in the handwriting of Leibnitz: "Papin's sidewheel ship." This last indorsement is of great value, as indicating the fact that Papin proposed to apply side wheels for the propulsion of his new invention. The following is a translation of Leibnitz' letter, the original of which I saw in the library:

"Dionysius Papin, Councillor and Physician to his royal highness the Elector of Cassel, also Professor of Mathematics at Marburg, is about to dispatch a vessel of singular construction down the river Weser to Bremen. As he learns that all ships coming from Cassel, or any point on the Fulda, are not permitted to enter the Weser, but are required to unload at Münden, and as he anticipates some difficulty, although those vessels have a different object, his own not being intended for freight, he begs most humbly that a gracious order be granted that his ship may be allowed to pass unmolested through the electoral domain, which petition I most humbly support.

G.W. Leibnitz.

"Hanover, July 13, 1707."

This letter was returned to Leibnitz with the following indorsement:

"The Electoral Councillors have found serious obstacles in the way of granting the above petition, and, without giving their reasons, have directed me to inform you of their decision, and that in consequence the request is not granted by his Electoral Highness.

H. Reiche.

"Hanover, July 25, 1707."

This failure of Papin's petition was the deathblow to his effort to establish steam navigation. A mob of boatmen, who thought they saw in the embryo ship the ruin of their business, attacked the vessel at night and utterly destroyed it. Papin narrowly escaped with his life, and fled to England, where he endured great hardships and poverty, and all traces of him were soon lost, so that it is uncertain in what country he finally died or where he was buried.

This remarkable man was driven out of France on account of his Protestant faith, and found a refuge in Germany; here he was again persecuted on account of the injury that ignorant and jealous people believed his inventions would inflict upon the industries of the country; and when the climax of steam engines for pumping water and propelling ships was reached, the enlightened government of the period "found serious obstacles" in the way of granting him protection, and, without condescending to state what those "objections" were, secretly instigated the mob to make an end of the trouble. It is another instance, unfortunately too often repeated in history, of the mischief men dressed up in a little brief authority can work upon their generation. If Papin had been permitted to navigate the Weser with his ship, and to carry it to London, as was his intention, it is possible that we should have had steamboats one hundred years earlier than they were given to us by Fulton. The plan proposed by Papin was highly impracticable; but a knowledge of what Savery had done in the way of steam machinery, aided by the shrewd suggestions of Leibnitz, combined with the practical assistance of Englishmen, would, no doubt, have enabled him to improve upon his invention until it had obtained sufficient credit to be secure against the misfortune of being totally forgotten. After the lapse of 100 years from the date of Papin's invention, when the first steamboat was put upon the river Rhine, the vessel was fired into by concealed marksmen on shore, and navigation was more dangerous than it is now on the upper waters of the Missouri in times of Indian hostility. It was only after stationing troops along the banks of the river to protect the boatmen that the government, fortunately more enlightened than in the days of Leibnitz, was able to establish steam navigation on a secure footing.

I have thought it worth while to make this contribution to the history of steam navigation, particularly as I have been able to authenticate a portion of it by reference to original documents.

Columbia College, New York city, January, 1877.