Half a croissant, on a plate, with a sign in front of it saying '50c'
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Connecticut Yankee Steam Engine Challenge

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The steam engine revolutionized the world. No longer were human endeavors yoked to the natural world and whatever energy could be captured from wind, falling water and animal exertions.

But could it have been done earlier? Now people know a lot about such engines and machines in general. Could a modern engineer retrofit a Roman watermill to run on steam? Could you make a steam powered wagon with Renaissance tehcnology? I think the issue is boiler pressures, from what little I know. Maybe one could avoid high wall stresses by going small: multiple small boilers using glass lined ceramic? Champagne bottle technology? It would be easy to carry spares. Anyway, the idea is the contest, not the implementation.

This would probably not be suited for the 1 hour TV format but would be better as a book.

Sequels or other endeavors along the same lines could include a hot air balloon flotilla made with pre-contact Aztec technology, another go at the Revolutionary War submarine (submariners could have scuba gear this time, just in case), the Emperors New Nuke, and so on.

bungston, Aug 15 2010

Victorian Tech Today Victorian_20Technology_20Today
similar spirit. [bungston, Aug 15 2010]

Newcomen steam engine http://en.wikipedia...wcomen_steam_engine
Working replica in existance. [8th of 7, Aug 15 2010]

Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria http://en.wikipedia...Heron_of_Alexandria
"Spin it ..." [8th of 7, Aug 15 2010]

Greatest Steampunk Video http://www.youtube....watch?v=vORsKyopHyM
[Wily Peyote, Aug 17 2010]

Bellfounding http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bellfounding
A very old technology [8th of 7, Aug 18 2010]

"Arena" (STOS) http://en.wikipedia..._Original_Series%29
"In three minutes a hungry Bengal Tiger will be released into the room. Beneath your chair are the disassembled components of a high-powered rifle, with ammunition. Take whatever steps you consider appropriate." [8th of 7, Jan 27 2011]

Roman roller bearings.... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nemi_ships
[not_morrison_rm, Mar 30 2012]

At least as old as recorded history... http://www.britishm...cation_of_beer.aspx
The most important thing about beer is that it's all accounted for. [Alterother, Apr 04 2012]


       Steampunk ?   

8th of 7, Aug 15 2010

       Of course it could have happened earlier. And it would have succeeded, if it hadn’t been for those pesky christians.   

       The thing is, most notable developments are essentially luck or desperation events sitting on top of other building blocks that have come together to afford such developments.   

       Wartime developments are interesting in this respect, in which both sides have almost very similar requirements and needs to fill, and therefore innovation is highly tuned and resonant. The invention of the jet engine, for example, deployed in the Gloster Meteor and the Messerschmitt Me 262 within almost the same timeframe as each other.
Ian Tindale, Aug 15 2010

       // innovation is highly tuned and resonant. //   

       More than that, budgetary constraints are sidelined if it seems that a particular line of investigation is liable to "pay off" quickly, and a lot of fiddling Health and Safety stuff and paperwork gets ignored.   

       Watching from the sidelines when a querulous and much-disliked Safety Officer is literally thrown out of a field trial by a couple of armed squaddies has to be one of life's all time great satisfactions, especially as they chose an especially deep and muddy puddle to fling him into.   

       Oh how we laughed.
8th of 7, Aug 15 2010

       // ran at 1 atmosphere //   

       Actually, -1 Atmosphere. You're thinking of the Newcomen reciprocating "atmospheric" steam engine.   


       Could have been constructed with Roman era technology.   

       Hero (or Heron) devised a type of steam turbine.   

8th of 7, Aug 15 2010

       Bun for steampunk.
DrWorm, Aug 15 2010

       //I think the issue is boiler pressures// Only if you're not prepared to tolerate a high (and high-mortality) failure rate.   

       Or to put it differently, Trevithik's advantage over Watt wasn't just boiler technology: he also had more guts*. Early cannon had a similar failure mode, but as noted above, the standards are different in military applications. Or again, in a slave society, a boiler which frequently exploded would be perfectly acceptable (also perfectly useless) if it could be operated by *unskilled* slaves.   

       *He invented a safety valve, too. _After_ one of his engines killed four people. Guts first, technology after.
mouseposture, Aug 15 2010

       With Watt, it was patents, first, the stifling of others progress, after.
Ian Tindale, Aug 16 2010

       It often makes me wonder, what “crucial” building blocks are we lacking in our present day? What haven’t we discovered at all, that will allow what people in the future consider the essentials of a modern lifestyle to have developed?
Ian Tindale, Aug 16 2010

       Excellent idea Mr Bungston (+)   

       Imagines welding contest: Each team is equipped with two sticks to rub together; lengths of bamboo tubing; a hollowed out coconut, and two steel plates. The winning team is the one who succeeds in welding the two plates together.
xenzag, Aug 16 2010

       //Hero (or Heron) devised a type of steam turbine// but never built it so it was just vaporware.
FlyingToaster, Aug 16 2010

       A guy just released a book on this, though the title evades me. As for the issue of boiler pressure, I would thin that was tackled by cannon builders centuries before, though I guess these only do half the job.   

       As stated the first steam piston steam engines were negative pressure devices but steam turbines could certainly have been built and were long ago by Hero. A reasonably small act of Monday morning quarterbacking could show how to create a much more efficient one in antiquity. I guess the tougher challenge is roller bearings...
MisterQED, Aug 16 2010

       Cannon builders built upon the shoulders of the bell makers.
Ian Tindale, Aug 16 2010

       [IT] Are you sure? I know they have been casting bells for centuries, but cannon goes way back too. I Googled but all I got was a bunch of "CAST of saved by the BELL" references.
MisterQED, Aug 16 2010

       Yes, that must’ve been them.
Ian Tindale, Aug 16 2010

       I'm thinking dirty bombs would be pretty easy.
RayfordSteele, Aug 18 2010

       // all I got was a bunch of "CAST of saved by the BELL" references. //   

       That's because the correct term is "bellfounding". (q.v.)
8th of 7, Aug 18 2010

       Sounds a bit 'Mythbusters'
simonj, Aug 20 2010

       //a bit Mythbusters//   

       Boneyard Wars: "using only period materials and tools, each team has 3 days to build an ..."   

       The Hero device is almost directly useable as a winch or spit-turner.
FlyingToaster, Aug 20 2010

       I was thinking recently of a similar challenge: "Third World Vegan". Vegan participants must cook vegan using foodstuffs available locally, for local diners. Nutritionists will extrapolate what the effects on the diners would be over time. There would be a couple of first world teams as well. Maybe a second worlder to be fair.
bungston, Jan 26 2011

       The Hero device is not useable. With no way to contain the steam prior to release, it is extrememly low pressure, and the amount of useable work out of it quickly approaches zero.
MechE, Jan 26 2011

       I think if the steam release holes were really small, they would contain a reasonable pressure, and allow some (I agree, not much, but...) work to be done. Could've run an small wood lathe with it, possibly.
neutrinos_shadow, Jan 27 2011

       Hard to imagine it would be better than kicking a flywheel. Maybe it could work a very small drill bit for tiny, precise holes in very hard materials: mightn't that benefit from high speed at low torque?
mouseposture, Jan 27 2011

       The order in which different technologies develop has an overwhelming influence in their implementation. The development of steam power after the development of metallurgy dictated that it was a technology of metal and pistons. We could have gone down the road of ceramic rotorjets.   

       How about shooting for   

       "First team to build a 1HP shaft drive wins."   

       You can use metal but you have to harvest and refine the ore from the raw mineral. Steam, combustion, or any other technique may be used but the engine must be mobile and independent from any fixed source (sun, wind, volcano, stream) and must not use animal or human work. 1HP made from scratch. All tooling must also be from scratch. I could see a lot of people getting into this.
WcW, Jan 27 2011

       easy peasy... turbine laid flat, built from wood and animal skins or woven cloth; powered by bonfires; animal fat for grease/lubrication of the central pole.
FlyingToaster, Jan 27 2011

       i have this bridge, great earning potential, but i need just the right buyer....
WcW, Jan 27 2011

       //retrofit a Roman watermill to run on steam?//

The usefulness of such a device would depend on what period of the Roman Republic/Empire you were talking about. Prior to the Roman invasion of Britain (from 43 AD onwards), they didn't know about coal so they probably wouldn't have had a plentiful, cheap fuel source to power the boiler with anyway (they were already chopping all the trees down for other purposes). Slaves to chain to a waterwheel, however? Oh yes, plenty of them alright!

Just because earlier civilisations didn't use a particular technology, doesn't mean that they didn't consider it and reject it or would have chosen it if they had known of its existence.

Automatic weapons are a great example of this. The Romans had an automatic bolt-thrower but they rejected it for practical use because, wait for it, it was too accurate! Their thinking was that the target had already been killed by the first bolt so what was the point of hitting him with two or three more? QED.

Having said all that, it would still be an interesting challenge.
DrBob, Jan 27 2011

       // harvest and refine the ore from the raw mineral //   

       Jim Kirk would win than one, no trouble.   

8th of 7, Jan 27 2011


       A guy just released a book on this, though the title evades me.
normzone, Jan 27 2011

       Brains in glass jars.
DrBob, Jan 28 2011

       Brains in pottery urns you mean. I think the Egyptians did that.
mouseposture, Jan 28 2011

       I was thinking more along the lines of ones that still functioned really.
DrBob, Jan 28 2011

       //retrofit a Roman watermill to run on steam?//   

       On an episode of Time Team, they investigated a watermill between two ponds, one higher than the other. It seems that a steam engine had been used to pump water from the lower to the upper pond, thus indirectly powering the watermill. An (obvious) lesson is that how technology is used also requires innovation, just as the technology itself.   

       Perhaps with Roman technology, a Hero turbine powering an Archimedes screw could be used as the pump.
spidermother, Jan 29 2011

       //I was thinking more along the lines of ones that still functioned// Most people's brains do function about as well as those Egyptian ones.
mouseposture, Jan 30 2011

       I am thinking a giant 4 (or more) cylinder block could be carved out of stone. The stone would be heated from below with a big fire. The cylinders turn a drive shaft. As each cylinder emerges from its hole, the tenders pour some water in. This turns to steam in time to push cylinder back out.
bungston, Jan 31 2011

       Actually, you could build a Newcomen engine like that, with multiple beams and pistons, but it would be very low-revving.   

       Granite can take a mirror polish. Pipework can be mostly lead, seals can be oiled or greased leather. Wood is used extensively.   

       Four beams in parallel, carried on a wall. one end of beam has a thick rope running down to the piston, which is a large wooden disc with a leather seal on top and water over that.   

       4- throw crankshaft and connecting rods at other end of beam.   

       Cycle (per piston):   

       Piston at top of stroke (pulled down by counterweight on beam).   

       Steam admitted to piston chamber from boiler, via lead pipe.   

       Steam valve closes, triggered by rotation of cranksaft/camshaft. Cold water injected into cylinder. Steam condenses, partial vacuum pulls piston down (power stroke).   

       Piston bottoms; exhaust valve opens, air sucked in, piston returns bcos of counterweight. Part way up stroke, steam admission resumes to flush cylinder.   

       At top of stroke, exhaust valve closes, cycle repeats.   

       The advantage of this is that there is always at least one cylinder taking steam so the "boiler" is never above atmostpheric pressure.   

       Condensate return is possible allowing some energy to be recovered.   

       This could certianly be built with 1st Century CE Roman technology, who could work would, leather, stone, iron, lead and bronze.
8th of 7, Jan 31 2011

       I am thinking now of a workaround to allow higher boiler pressures for the Roman steam engine. Maybe one could have the entire apparatus at the bottom of a pool, using external water pressure to counter an internal pressure of several atmospheres. I guess you would need the heat source below the pool, sort of like the fire for an oven, heating a plate in contact with the boiler.   

       The pool would also provide a measure of safety in case of explosion.
bungston, Mar 29 2012

       Could an, efficient, low speed ceramic turbine and housing be built without metal? I have often wondered if it was feasible to build a seam plant without metal at all. Anyone have insight? Thinking of a point and cone bearing with carbon lubrication and grease seals. large ceramic boiler with the housing cast into it, output shaft made of hardwood, fed manually via a pressurized reservoir, it could be very small.
WcW, Mar 29 2012

       What about the concept of constructing 'nested' leaky boilers to obtain high pressures in the center boiler. There would be an awful lot of fiddling with seals admittedly. A central core cylinder of copper could conduct heat into the center boiler from the outside fire.
AusCan531, Mar 29 2012

       //There would be an awful lot of fiddling with seals admittedly.// Wait til Greenpeace finds out.
MaxwellBuchanan, Mar 29 2012

       I have just forwarded to Greenpeace your last annotation on the Socially Aware Fridge posting. It'll be a long time before Greenpeace and my history of seal fiddling catches up with me and by then I will have shifted countries again.
AusCan531, Mar 29 2012

       Every one of those Mt. Graham Red Squirrels was shot in self defense.
MaxwellBuchanan, Mar 29 2012

       Damn you [MB]. I was just accosted by 2 Greenpeace volunteers in the local shopping centre. I looked to the ground, mumbled then slunk away quickly feeling and looking guilty.
AusCan531, Mar 30 2012

       Dark sunglasses aren't much help when you're wearing a "Nuke the Whales" T-shirt.
FlyingToaster, Mar 30 2012

       //I guess the tougher challenge is roller bearings...//   

       I do seem to recollect on some tv show (Barbarians?) they had fairly recently found a roller bearing on some ship Nero used to fool about on, only for the technology to be forgotten for 15 centuries or so...
not_morrison_rm, Mar 30 2012

       Regarding steam power, I wonder if there aren't other ways to harness heat, which are less dependent on modern materials and engineering.   

       It should be possible for even the most ancient of ancients to create a giant bimetallic strip, which would move to and fro (albeit quite slowly) when heated and cooled.   

       In fact, I bet you could make a heat-propelled wheel in that way, with some sort of arrangement of bimetallic spokes.
MaxwellBuchanan, Mar 30 2012

       ^ shaped like a horse.
FlyingToaster, Mar 30 2012

       // ceramic boiler //   

       Boilers are generally made of highly conductive materials - early ones were of copper, later of iron, then steel.   

       Ceramics tend to be noted as good insulators. For a boiler, this is a Bad Thing.   

       [AC531]'s // central core cylinder of copper could conduct heat into the center boiler from the outside fire // has some merit but would be far from perfect.
8th of 7, Mar 30 2012

       //has some merit but would be far from perfect.//. High praise indeed from [8th].   

       I was thinking further about this and reckoned that a copper/brass inverted hollow cone containing the heat source would do the trick. A nested series of pressure tanks would sit on top of cone, (well strapped down) each with a pressure-relief valve discharging excess pressure into the lower pressured tank surrounding it. Think of it like a set of Russian matryoshka dolls impaled on an inverted ice cream cone.   

       If all the relief valves were set at say, 100psi, then the centre tank of a nest of 5 tanks could reach 500psi. At the top end you would need a discharge tube which gets proportionately thicker to contain the high pressure steam being released to perform work. The sections of the discharge tube closer to the centre of the apparatus are partially strengthened by the surrounding pressures. A cannon barrel should perform nicely. It is much simpler to contain high pressures in a small radius cylinder than a large radius tank with commensurately larger surface area.   

       Delivering water into the centre, high pressure tank would be tricky but could be done as the engineer would only have to overcome single step pressure differentials of 100psi with his injection system. The rest of the details I shall leave as an exercise for the reader.
AusCan531, Mar 30 2012

       I wonder if the Romans had beer? Carbonated beverages implies a keg or barrel capable of withstanding more that 1 atm pressure.   

       The nested vessels thing is neat. I recall seeing a similar russian doll pressure vessel scheme on the HB, but I think for a blimp.
bungston, Mar 31 2012

       Yes, the Romans had beer. Beer does not require a pressure vessel; that's a very modern trend in a very ancient drink.
spidermother, Mar 31 2012

       The drink that evolved into what we now know as beer is at least as old as recorded history.   

Alterother, Apr 01 2012

       Yes, you can see the bit where the cuneiform goes wonky after the third beer.
not_morrison_rm, Apr 01 2012

       A fairly ancient form of beer is still brewed in Ethiopia. It doesn't taste very nice.
pertinax, Apr 01 2012

       Fresh beer is nicely self carbonating, convenient if you lack sealed vessels because it tends to blanket itself with CO2 reducing oxidation. Adding more sugar occasionally and keeping it cold, and a beer can remain carbonated for more than a month. It is also possible to maintain a continuous attenuated ferment by adding diluted wert to make back volume. Not great beer, but beer and bubbles none the less.
WcW, Apr 01 2012

       //Not great beer, but beer and bubbles none the less.//   

       Ahh [insert brand name of cheap lager of your choice here]!   

       Well, it's always interesting to talk about people missing innovations, I mean, where would be without smoof? <looks around, realises he's in the wrong universe..backs gently to wormhole entrance.>
not_morrison_rm, Apr 02 2012

       //realises he's in the wrong universe// Happens to most of us in late adolescence, if not earlier.
mouseposture, Apr 03 2012

       It's worse when you realise that you're in the right Universe and it's everyone else who's in the wrong one ...
8th of 7, Apr 03 2012

       L'Enfer, as you may have noticed, c'est les autres.
mouseposture, Apr 03 2012

       Not quite ... L'Enfer est les enfants des autres, actually.
8th of 7, Apr 04 2012

       // Yes, you can see the bit where the cuneiform goes wonky after the third beer. //   

       You're not wrong... <link>
Alterother, Apr 04 2012

       Loosly translated, the cuneiform towards the bottom left goes "you're my best pal, you are..." and then something about a traffic cone, which I can't make out..
not_morrison_rm, Apr 05 2012

       As has been hinted at, the Romans had no need for a primitive steam engine, what with their abundant supply of slaves. Not saying they wouldn't have jumped at the chance to use a modern one if it had dropped into their laps, but they would have had to get there by way of a clunky and inefficient one, where slave labour would have probably done a better job, thus halting development.   

       Now, when was slavery outlawed in Britain again? Hmm...
BunsenHoneydew, Apr 07 2012

       1833, but it was re-legalized in 1998.
Alterother, Apr 07 2012

       now now, you know "white slavery" isn't counted as slavery.
FlyingToaster, Apr 07 2012

       I'm joking, but I'm also telling the truth. Britain's abolition of slavery was rescinded in '98.
Alterother, Apr 07 2012

       //to use a modern one if it had dropped into their laps/   

       Sounds kind of painful....asbestos togas permitting..
not_morrison_rm, Apr 08 2012

       // asbestos toga //   

       You should post that ... great for the BBQ chef at a toga party.
8th of 7, Apr 08 2012

       According to Q.I., the Romans rarely wore togas. They were like judicial robes or formal suits; ceremonial rather than everyday, practical garments. My point being that an asbestos tunic is requiring to be worn.
spidermother, Apr 08 2012

       ...and I neglected to mention the kevlar and RSJ's sewn into the asbestos tunics/toga's as steam engines do tend to be on the weighty side.   

       I'm guessing a Roman engineer's toga (for formal occasions) was blue flax, the special "one size fits nobody", with many pockets and possibly the brand of a chariot maker embroidered on the back?
not_morrison_rm, Apr 10 2012


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