Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) There was a time in history when the human body was the only way to power things. Then we learned to harness horses and oxen. Then we figured out how to use water for power with waterwheels. But all these sources of power have their limitations. You cannot create a locomotive or a cruise ship like the Titanic with any of these power sources. And while you can create a power plant or a factory powered by water, you are severely limited as to where you can locate them. The world needed a better source of power. The steam engine provided the transition to the industrial age. The first high-pressure steam engine was introduced in 1800 by British engineer Richard Trevithick. By 1850, engineers had incrementally improved steam engines and the Corliss steam engine became the state of the art for large stationary power needs. It was efficient and reliable, as well as large and heavy, making it a good engine for powering factories. The San Francisco cable car system used steam engines of this type. The engine used to power the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 is an example: a two-cylinder steam engine producing 1,400 horsepower (one million watts). Pistons more than a yard (one meter) in diameter moved 10 feet (3 meters) in their cylinders to spin a flywheel 30 feet (9 meters) across. The Titanic used the next generation of steam engine, in which multiple cylinders captured energy from successive expansions of the same steam. A key element for any high-pressure steam engine is the boiler, where boiling water creates the steam pressure. The problem with boilers is that, being under high pressure, they had some probability of exploding. One of the most horrific boiler explosions occurred aboard a steam-powered ship named the Sultana in 1865. It had four boilers, one of which had started leaking and had been hastily repaired. With roughly 2,000 people on board, the repaired area presumably failed, causing an immense boiler explosion that killed a total of about 1,800 people. Today engineers spec steam turbines instead. You find them in nearly every power plant. >President Ulysses S Grant and Don Pedro starting the Corliss engine at the Centennial celebration, Philadelphia. 1576.