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Rediscovering Reciprocating Steam

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Thermodynamics, Fluids, and Heat Transfer I

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1227.1 - 22.1227.20



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Paper Authors


Matthew A. Carr U.S. Naval Academy

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Commander, U.S. Navy,
Ph.D., P.E.,
Permanent Military Professor,
Nuclear Submarine Officer,
Member, the Newcomen Society for the History of Engineering and Technology.

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Rediscovering Reciprocating SteamThe purposes of this article are to present an overview of the history of reciprocating steamengines including example thermo-fluids analyses using authentic historical data, and toencourage including historical perspectives when teaching thermodynamics and fluid mechanics.Modern treatment of undergraduate thermo-fluids courses tends toward superficialacknowledgement of the role of reciprocating steam engines in the development of powersystems. Very few modern textbooks discuss how to analyze reciprocating steam engines andwhile they typically acknowledge James Watt as a significant inventor of steam enginetechnology, these textbooks give few details about his innovations beyond the separatecondenser. Reciprocating steam powered the industrial revolution and was the dominantmechanical power system from the early 18th Century through the early 20th Century. Stationarypower plants of all sizes, trains, ships, and even some automobiles used reciprocating steamengines of various configurations. When steam turbines were introduced a little more than acentury ago, this new technology started to replace reciprocating steam, but both technologiesco-existed for more than 50 years.Today, reciprocating steam engines operating in industrialized nations may largely be relegatedto nostalgic restorations of antique traction engines at farm shows, steam locomotives on touristrailroads, miscellaneous museum pieces, and toys and models of various complexities.However, the rugged nature and long life span of reciprocating steam engines means that theyremain more commonly used in many post-colonial Third World nations. Many students inAmerican Universities come from these nations and would benefit from instruction in how theseengines work and how to analyze them in the event they return to their country of origin andencounter these systems in professional practice.In the United States and other developed countries, there are numerous hobbyists and aficionadoswho have been captivated by reciprocating steam and restore old engines and even build newones. Today’s students can benefit from a greater appreciation of the operating principles ofthese historic engines and exercise fundamental engineering skills in the process of analyzingthem using modern techniques. And many people find the historical development of technologyto be very interesting. Studying these elegant and fascinating engines can motivate students andcontribute to the learning process for those studying thermo-fluids courses.

Carr, M. A. (2011, June), Rediscovering Reciprocating Steam Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18853

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