Denis Papin, 1647-1712: Letting Off Some Steam

The  steam boat, that was Robert Fulton’s baby, right?  Good old 19th century American know-how.  No? Not him?

Okay, James Watt, then.  Just the sort of thing a clever Scottish engineer would come up with.

The French beat them both to the punch.  Denis Pepin built the first steam driven paddle boat – in 1704.

The fellow wasn’t even a mechanic.  Not by training at least,  His university degree was in medicine, and even at an advanced point in his non-medical career he was referred to as le medecin Papin.

Then again, lots of doctors find they don’t like the down and dirty of patient duty.   Papin was by nature a man of machines.  In  the age of the amateur scientist, his chief  fascination was pressure.  Air pressure, steam pressure.  Pressure.

His career was largely one of chance, as will happen. Two years after getting his degree in medicine, he was in Paris where in the days before Radio Shack and Edmund’s Scientific, he was noted for his skill in making mechanical devises.   He was snapped up by Dutchman Christiaan Huygens (inventor of the pendulum clockwork) who was trying to solve a problem in his vacuum engines.  The first part was easy, getting the piston in one direction by creating a vacuum- the hard part was getting the vacuum to let go and permit a full revolution.  The method of that time was gunpowder.  Well, it was still a work in progress.

Papin’s work  with Huygens led to a job with with Sir Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke in London.  By 1680 he was member of the Royal Society, which help land him his next job as at the Accademia Publicca di Scienze in Venice (1681-1684).*  Such is the international  brotherhood of science.

Science aims for the apolitical, government does not.  Papin was a Huguenot,  and with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, life in France was no longer safe for a man like him.  For whatever reason he was desirous of a change, and this time, Germany was the next ticket, a professorship at the university of Marburg, thanks to the local Margrave, Prince Charles of Hesse.

It was something of a disappointment after Paris and London and Venice, and there was not a lot of interest at the humanities based university in his kind of clunky work.   With little enough to do in the classroom, he tinkered with his machines and tried to help out with the local mining and smelting concerns.  He wrote a treatise on steam engines (De Novis Quibusdam Machinis), his great white whale project.

The margrave took some interest (at least when he wasn’t off at the wars), the local workers rather more.  It was while here that Papin made ventilators for deep mines, and a method of rolling sheet glass.  To entertain his patron, he came up with more dramatic creation – a submarine for the river (the margrave yawned) or a pump to get water to the roof of the palace in order to get the garden fountains to work (the margrave had another war to get to).

On the plus side, Papin had married in 1671 and had found a fellow traveller in Leibniz.  And he nailed the problem of eliminating gunpowder from engines.  You will remember it from high-school science- once a chamber expands with steam and pushes a piston forward, how to get it back again?

Papin came up with observation that  cooling the steam will create a vacuum, thus pulling the piston back into position for another expanding hot steam bath.  A model was demonstrated in Marburg and he sought leave to take the idea to London where he might get backing for an industrial sized model.  The margrave missed his opportunity and off went Papin.

The whole thing now was practical applications. In truth, he was something of a Leonardo in that much of what he worked on and wanted to build never really got built.   He came up with the idea of the automobile, if not a working model. Air cannons.  And then there was that steam powered paddle boat.  He did make one, but it fell a little short when the rivermen at Munden (Holland) went all Luddite on him and broke the paddles. * *

Which explains the dismal end game.   Boatless but hopeful,  he pushed on to London in 1707 with the idea of building interest in his pumping engine.

He failed.  The Royal Society quibbled over a long forgotten piddling sum on his account.  Doors remained shut.  His best years past, his utility worn out, his patrons and friends absent, he went for five years in steady decline before disappearing completely from the record, whether dead or back to Germany, no one knows for certain.

Exit Papin, enter Thomas Newcomen.  That same year the Devon native put the principles of Papin’s  engine into the water pump that famously drained Cornish tin mines of water.   The concept took off and soon all over Europe mining experienced a resurgence.

Time is everything and life is unfair, and what must Papin thought of it, assuming he ever found out?  (The logical assumption is that he moved back to Germany to be with family, but there is no evidence one way or the other.)

Well, if France was slow to honor Papin or pick up on steam locomation or pumps or any of the odder ideas, they were quick to adopt another one  of his creations which was rather closer to the French heart than mere transportation.

Papin, you see,  was also the inventor of the pressure cooker.  French cookery has never looked back.

*Failed for lack of money.  Venice’s glory days were well behind it.

** At least, that’s the story.  There are those who say the engine was never a part of it or that he never really mastered the engine, or indeed that the whole thing wasn’t his at all.  And that goes double for the paddle boat.  Certainly he did write De Novice quibusdam machinis and the Nouvelle maniere pour lever l’eau par la force de feu (1707)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *