Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.

How Does Steam Power Work?

When you talk about steampunk, you often end up talking about steam power. That’s great if you had a science class recently, but those days are way in the past for me. As I have been doing with other topics, I’d like to share some recent research.

How Does Steam Power Work?

Today, we use oil as a major resource when powering anything. Before the 20th century, the primary resource for fuel was coal.

When coal is burned, energy is released as heat. So, for a steam engine to work, coal was burned, creating a fire. Then there’s the boiler, which holds the water. As the name suggests, the heat from the burning coal boils the water, just as water in a pot does when cooking. Today, we normally turn on the vent above the stove or open a window to keep the steam from setting off the smoke alarm. Steam engines did not do this. That steam was pumped into a pipe where it activates a piston, the piece that pumps back and forth in order to transfer mechanical energy to the machine connected to it.

As mentioned earlier, steam power was used in steam engines to manufacture products quicker and cheaper, but this power made transportation easier too.


Steam Locomotives

Steam locomotives are vehicles that move on tracks or rails.  The first successful one was created in 1814 by British Engineer, George Stephenson.  His train could haul 30 tons of coal up a hill at 4mph. It wasn’t until 1825 that the first public railway was created for these locomotives. The invention was brought to America, and soon locomotives were regularly transporting hauling traincars of material, such as coal and passengers, across the country.

In a steam locomotive, there is a firebox where a worker shovels coal inside to keep the fire stoked. The steam created from the boiling water pumped through cylinders activates the pistons, which are connected to the wheels. The wheels would then turn and move the locomotive.

The popular British show, Top Gear, filmed a challenge in which Jeremy Clarkson, one of the hosts, raced a steam powered train against cars. His job was to keep the firebox heated, which apparently is extremely difficult.



Steamboats came just before locomotives, and they were very useful for transporting supplies and people. Within a country, they were used on rivers and canals. International trade was improved after the invention, which helped the boost in economies and incomes.

Robert Fulton from Virginia created the first steamboat, the Claremont, in 1807. Before, transportation on water relied on currents to move the floating vehicles. Claremont was the first to move up river from New York to Albany. Soon, Fulton was running several different steamboat services on Chesapeake Bay and six major rivers.

In the US, trade between the North and South became more convenient as cotton could easily be transported upriver.  Population growth surged in the Ohio River Valley during the Industrial Revolution as towns alongside rivers grew into cities because to easy access to the water tradelanes.

The impact of steamboats can be seen today. When you look on a map, it’s easy to see that most of the major cities are alongside a river. And just like the 1800’s, trade and travel by ship still exists today, which is why cities alongside rivers continue to grow. Ships today, however, do not run on steam power, but instead on large diesel engines.

2 comments on “How Does Steam Power Work?

  1. Jonas Lee
    January 26, 2015

    Now, would geothermal heat still be considered steampunk-related or does it have to come from a water-based source?

    • tracycembor
      February 3, 2015

      Sure, just stick some cogs on it. ;) It is mostly how the power source is handled, not so much what it is. If it is alternate techonology or anachronistic, then I would say yes.

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on January 26, 2015 by in Steampunk, Victorian History and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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Monday through Friday I will be posting about writing as business and craft, the science of creativity, all things steampunk, and progress on The Dreamless City.

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About the Author

Tracy Cembor attempts to juggle a preschooler and a baby, a full-time job, random geekery, and the writing life. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a steampunk urban fantasy novel. Come join the adventure.
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