Water Engines: Page 2

Updated: 4 July 2008

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According to A Textbook of Mechanical Engineering, by Wilfred J Lineham, (1912), the first hydraulic piston engines in England were introduced by Armstrong in 1838. However... a little research soon showed that this is quite wrong. Immediately below is shown the Westgarth-Smeaton engine below, built in 1765; this was probably the first water engine constructed in Great Britain. There is also the Mainwaring engine below, which must have been built before 1835, as it is described in The Engineer's and Mechanic's Encyclopaedia by Hebert, which was written in that year.
Victorian Water Engines for more on Armstrong and his innovations.

Left: The Westgarth-Smeaton water engine: 1765

This water engine was built by William Westgarth, the mine agent at Coalcleugh, Northumberland, and installed there in 1765; improvements were suggested by the famous engineer John Smeaton. One of these was the replacement of the beam with a wheel that rocked to and fro. Westgarth would have known about the Newcomen steam engine and was almost certainly aware of the water engines in use on the continent.

This is the only known image of the engine, and apparently shows it before Smeaton's ideas were acted on. The drawing even shows the sizes of the timbers used, so it should be easy to make your own...
Unfortunately the function of the various parts is none too clear. D is the engine and C is the pump, er, or it might be the other way round. There should be three pipes leading to the machine; the supply of water to power it, the exhaust water leaving the engine, and the delivery pipe for the water being lifted, but only two are visible.

Picture from Eighteenth Century Inventions, by K T Rowland .

My best guess is that there are actually two pipes on the right, one behind the other, rather than one with a Y-junction at the bottom. One is the supply and the other the pump delivery. If that is the case, then C is the engine, with exhaust at B, and D is the pump. The water supply comes in via pipe A, is controlled by the plug-cock at Q, and then splits to feed the engine C and the pump D. N is an air-vessel to absorb pulsations in water delivery, and P is a similar vessel to cushion sudden changes in water demand as the engine valves work. The spidery arrangement to the left of the crankshaft may be some sort of valvegear for the engine section.

Note the connecting rod F, joining the beam L to the crank of the flywheel G; this is arranged so it can be disconnected in the middle. The side elevation below shows a big handle which must be for hand-pumping when the power water supply fails. As later parts of this page show, a flywheel is not essential to a water engine, but might be desirable to steady hand pumping.

It looks as though there might be another (closed) disconnector in rod E. I am by no means sure my interpretation of the parts is right- it is possible that C is the pump and D is the engine. If that's so, the second disconnector would be to uncouple the engine cylinder when hand pumping was in use.

Left: side elevation of the Westgarth-Smeaton water engine: 1765

Another Westgarth-Smeaton engine was installed at the The Fair Chance mine at Cwm Mawr. A Mr Cole was appointed to build in 1784, but the castings did not arrive until August 1785. It had a wheel instead of a beam. There were many problems, including failure of the wheel axle, and the first successful trial did not occur until September 1787. (see pdf)


After the middle of the eighteenth century, power-driven pumps were in common use to drain the greater part of the mine systems below the level of the main drainage adits. (Adits are near-horizontal tunnels used for drainage by gravity- they can only drain that part of a mine above a valley floor) With exquisite irony, extensive use of water power for pumping meant that during droughts the water supply failed and the mines could flood. To try to prevent this extensive networks of waterways and dam ponds were built. Ice could also be a problem in the winter.
Steam was found to be very expensive to operate compared with hydraulic engines, which were almost as effective and much cheaper; in the era before railways coal was difficult to transport and was consequently expensive to use in areas distant from coal mines. There are several cases on record of Newcomen-type engines being installed but later abandoned because of prohibitive fuel costs. An example is the Wheal Rose mine in Cornwall, where an engine was installed in 1727, but the fuel costs were so high that the proprietors found it more economical to drive a 1.5 mile drainage adit and discontinue use of the engine. [Palmer}
A steam engine also required constant supervision from skilled men, and even given that a boiler explosion was always an interesting possibility. Surprisingly perhaps, the economic advantage of water engines persisted for many years, well into the railway era; for example, by 1872 the last of the steam engines at the Derwent lead mines in the Pennines had been replaced by a water pressure engine.


Left: An early water engine: pre-1835

This engine was erected by a Mr Mainwaring (no, nothing to do with Dad's Army) at some time before 1835, at Messrs Cook & Co's alum works near Whitby. It closely follows the steam-engine technology of the time. The power cylinder a is at the right of the beam, with next to it a column containing valves to control the inlet and outlet of water. Water with a head of 170 feet was supplied through pipe A. B is an air-chamber to absorb sudden changes in water demand and prevent water-hammer.

From The Engineer's and Mechanic's Encyclopaedia, Hebert 1835.

Mainwaring water engine text
Left: Operational Details of The Mainwaring engine.

According to Galloway, the textual information here was prepared by the engineer that erected the engine.

From History and Progress of the Steam Engine, by Galloway, published London, 1830, p650
Mainwaring water engine text
Left: Operational Details of The Mainwaring engine.
From History and Progress of the Steam Engine, by Galloway, published London, 1830, p650
Mainwaring water engine text
Left: Operational Details of The Mainwaring engine.
From History and Progress of the Steam Engine, by Galloway, published London, 1830, p650


Left: Another early water engine

This drawing is slightly mysterious as it appears in Knights Mechanical Dictionary without attribution, and it does not exactly follow the construction of any of the early beam-type water engines on the first page of this Gallery. It may not represent an actual machine, but be purely an illustrative diagram; it is a good example of the use of an auxiliary cylinder to operate the valves.

The power cylinder a is on the left. In the middle is a column with piston-valves d and d' that control the inlet and outlet of water. This valve is moved by the small cylinder f, the water inlet and exhaust of which is controlled by the 4-way cock h, which is driven from the main piston-rod by lever g. Water is supplied through pipe b.

From Knights American Mechanical Dictionary, 1880.


"The general appearance of the water engine, which has been invented by Mr Dickson, engineer of this town, much resembles the steam engine, there being several parts of the former so contrived, that water, when applied to it, works with the smoothness of an elastic fluid."
"The water comes in a pipe from the reservoir to the cylinder of the engine, in this, by its natural weight, corresponding to the pressure of the steam, and if there can be got a declivity from the cylinder, the suction of the water in the pipe leading from the cylinder corresponds to the condensation. Taking the force upon the piston of a common steam engine, at 18 Ibs upon every square inch, which is allowing 3 Ibs for pressure, and 15 Ibs for the condensation, a column of water 40 feet high will have the same force upon the piston, and although the whole height may lie above the cylinder, yet the power will be undiminished, if there should be 34 feet leading from the cylinder, and in that case, the pressure and suction will be the same as in a common steam engine. As the water engine can be accommodated to a fall of any height above it, and retain the power of the water for 34 feet perpendicular below where the cylinder is placed, (the fall both to or from the cylinder may be at any slope) it will work with a great power in some situations, where an overshot water wheel, even of the diameter of 30 feet, will have very little effect. Besides the benefit that may be derived from using the water engine on a large scale, the great convenience from the small space occupied, the freedom from damp, and the safety from explosions or fire, makes it an object to gentlemen, manufacturers, or others, having reservoirs or the means of collecting water on the top of their house, who wish a small power, for useful purposes, exercise, or amusement."

From Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine p689, 1820

The bit about "collecting water on the top of their house" seems to imply that you could run a water-engine on rain-water. This is not likely to be very practical, even under extreme monsoon conditions. What the writer means about using a water-engine for exercise I cannot imagine.


A Mr Deans of Hexham erected several water engines, which were described by Weisbach as "simple and efficient". He built a water engine at Wanlockhead, in Scotland, in 1830 or 31. It had a fall-bob (whatever that is) for working the valves. [Weisbach]

The descripton below is taken from a letter by a Mr John Dolphin, of Hunter House, Hexham, to The Mining Journal, dated Saturday 2nd December 1837. It appeared on Page 181.

Letter: Water Power.

"Sir, - An article appeared in your Supplement to the Mining Journal, of September 9th, extracted from the Greenock Advertizer, and headed "Water Power," which I did not particularly notice at the moment, but subsequently, at a meeting of the Northumberland Agricultural Association, at Hexham, it was brought more immediately to my recollection by Mr. W. Deans, an engineer of that place. I observe the article in question to be, a discovery of a new application of water power - that it consists of a cylinder and piston similar to those employed in a steam-engine - that advantage is taken of the pressure of water, which gives it a force of 60lbs to the inch, the entrance and discharge pipes being of equal sizes, and the number of strokes sixteen in a minute, with the cylinder placed in a vertical position - and that the discoverer had made another model with the cylinder laid horizontally, and with the discharge pipes nearly three times as large as the entrance ones; and by this means the motion was increased to twenty-six double strokes in the minute. I think it of great importance that any useful discovery in mechanics should be made as public as possible, and that the author should have all the merit it deserves; and I hold it to be equally just, that where such a claim is publicly set up, without the merit of a discovery, that it should be as publicly exposed.

"I have been connected with very extensive lead mines in the north of England for more than thirty years, and have known the same application of water power used in some of them, for pumping and other purposes, during all that time. The first engine of that description used in England, was at a lead mine, belonging to T.W. Beaumont, Esq., called Coal Cleugh, in Northumberland, and was erected about fifty years since, by Mr. Westgarth, who obtained a medal from the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce; and I believe, it is at work to this day. The next engine, of the same description, of which I have any knowledge, was used at a lead mine called Crash Purse, near Chesterfield. A plan of this engine was taken by Mr W Deans, an engineer employed at the Derwent Lead Mines, in the County of Durham, in 1810, and one was erected by him at these mines, which has continued working up to this time. The engines I have named were of single power, taking in the water on the top of the piston only. About fourteen years since, another engine was required at the Derwent Mines, and Mr Deans was directed to make it of greater power; he therefore applied himself to improve upon his former plan, and put up a very powerful engine at the Jeffries Rake Lead Mine, on the same principle as a double-powered steam-engine - this was the first application of the pressure to both sides of the piston, and it was found to be a great improvement.

"In 1831, the Marquis of Bute requiring some additional pumping power in his lead mines at Wanlockhead, and having learned that a great improvement had been made in the construction of water pressure engines, at the Derwent Lead Mines, sent an agent there to inspect them, , and on his report determined to employ Mr Deans to erect one, which was done in the early part of 1832, and which superseded the use of two very expensive steam-engines. Last year he put another for the same nobleman, at the same mines, and as the space for the cylinder, if placed in an upright position, required to be cut out of very hard rock underground, at a great expense, he devised the method of placing it horizontally, and in doing so discovered that he could also simplify the machinery attached for pumping. Both these engines are now in use at Wanlockhead Lead Mines, and I presume the Greenock tradesman must have seen them. Mr Deans is now at work with one for the Scotch Mining Company, at Lead Hills mines, adjoining to Wanlockhead; and he is also preparing one of a greatly improved construction, intending to give it a rotative motion, for the purpose of applying it as a drawing engine."

Note that Mr Deans' water engine "superseded the use of two very expensive steam-engines."

Note also that the writer claims that performance was greatly improved by making "the discharge pipes nearly three times as large as the entrance ones" which seems a bit strange, as water is notoriously incompressible.


Six water engines were erected at the Alport lead mines, near Bakewell in Derbyshire, to the design of Mr Darlington, the Alport mine engineer. They were constructed under a Mr John Taylor of the Butterly Iron Company. (According to SciMusLib John Taylor was the actual designer) Whether these engines replaced the Trevithick water engines at Alport because they were worn out or for some other reason is curently obscure.

Left: Alport engine

The legend on this drawing implies that there was only one water engine at Alport, though other sources say six. At any rate, that shown here was one of the largest ever constructed, with a cylinder 50 inches in diameter and a 10 foot stroke, running from a head of water of 132 feet, and yielding about 168 hp at around 70% efficency. It was single-acting, with water being admitted under the piston to lift the pump-rod E.

The double beam was pivoted on a link fixed at A. The rod driven from the centre of this beam controlled large inlet and exhaust valves at D. At F can be seen what appears to be a weighted relief valve to protect the pipework against shocks as the inlet valve closed.

A gate valve B controlled the inlet of power water, with a similiar valve C in the outlet pipe. I have no idea why an exhaust stop-valve was fitted.

This design is similiar to that of Juncker, using the same single-acting configuration with the piston lifting the pump-rod directly. However, the design of the valves here is much simpler; they are operated directly rather than by an auxiliary water engine.

From SciMusLib Water brown p334.

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