Steam engines for great explorer

Tour Charlottenstraße 53a, 56077 Koblenz, DE

Steam power has fundamentally changed our lives. What influence the steam engine also had on our life on the Rhine is well explained with this walk along the 13 exhibits - also with some background information about history, functions and the influence on the industrial revolution.



Das Rhein-Museum Koblenz ist ein kulturhistorisches Museum in Koblenz, das das Leben am Rhein unt...

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26 Stations

Two-cylinder expansion compound steam engine of the excavator "Alberich"

Two-cylinder expansion compound steam engine of the excavator "Alberich" to drive the bucket chain, around 1927 (on the ground floor)

You are standing in front of a 3-ton steam engine that was built in 1927. Isn't it unbelievable that such primeval machines were built and used less than 100 years ago?

This machine was on the dredger "Alberich". The machine powered a chain to which buckets were attached. The buckets were used to dredge mud from the Moselle River in order to increase the river’s depth for shipping.

It is easy to see that this machine has 2 cylinders at the top. The steam is used twice. After the steam has moved the piston in the first cylinder, some pressure has already been lost, but is still used again by being directed to the larger piston in the second cylinder. This works, as force equals pressure times area. Such machines are called multi-cylinder compound steam engines. In addition to the pressure, the expansion of the steam is also used, which is still effective when the live steam valve has long since been closed. Therefore this machine is a so-called expansion steam engine. Due to the compound principle and the use of steam expansion, the machine becomes more economical and environmentally friendly. Both are still important aspects today.

This is a model that doesn't run on steam here in the museum. In order to be able to show how the parts move, the steam engine is set in motion by an electric motor. Instead of the steam engine doing work, the steam engine is driven here. Just press the button to see the engine work.

When the machine is working, you can see how the pistons in the cylinders transmit their power via piston rods to a crankshaft below. You can easily see why this shaft is called a “crankshaft”: It is actually cranked via the protruding so-called crank pins.

If you look at the crankshaft, you will notice that the crankings are at right angles to one another and not offset by 180 °. You may wonder why . It has to be the case because the first cylinder works at 0 ° and at 180 °. Then the second cylinder kicks in at 90 ° and at 270 °. What looks strange at first glance turns out to be reasonable.

Next to the connecting rods, you can see other, slightly thinner levers that move. This is the control of the valve slide for the live steam supply to the cylinders. A good and precise control was very important so that the machine could be operated economically.

At that time, a belt was placed on the flywheel on the crankshaft, which drove a smaller belt pulley, over the shat of which the bucket chain was moved. The elastic belt also picked up unwanted vibrations so that the bucket chain ran smoothly.

This steam engine was very helpful in digging the mud out of the Moselle River without muscle power.

Steam generation

Until 1880, steam engines were fueled by workers first with wood and later with coal. When wages rose, manufacturers sought to reduce costs. That led to mechanical feeding and later to the use of liquid fuels like oil that, even easier, could be pumped without human labor. Production of durable steam boilers was very complex in the 19th century. To get sheets, steel had to be hammered with great effort. Furthermorw, sheets were available up to a size of approx. 0.3m² only. The sheets were riveted together and were sealed with lead or tar, for example. Until about 1840 only low steam pressures of up to 3 bar were possible. Ernst Alban, a medicinal doctor, who took a great interest in technical developments, devised improved sheet connections by means of overlapping them and riveting them in one go. With the advent of rolled sheet metal, steam pressures of up to 10 bar became possible. Still, te steel, which was used until 1880, remained a weak point due to its hardness. Boiler explosions occurred frequently. Guidelines stipulated by and controls executed by governments hardly helped. Steam boiler operators therefore founded private monitoring associations, the forerunners of today's TÜV (i.e. Association for Technical Inspection). These associations issued specifications for construction, such as the separation of the boiler house from the rest of factory. Hence, both occupational and operational safety improved considerably.

Use of steam

The basic principle of the steam engine is simple: hot steam is fed to a cylinder, which moves a piston along an axis. A linkage and an eccentric drive a flywheel whose mass also compensates for irregularities in the movement. The result is a torque that can be used to drive various utility machines. Steam engines opened up completely new possibilities for companies because they radically changed working methods and working conditions. Initially, an enormous amount of energy was lost through friction and steam losses due to leakage. With better materials and more precise manufacturing, the functional principle of a classic steam engine can be used to achieve around 16% efficiency. However, this means 84% of the energy used is wasted. A modern diesel engine achieves around 40% efficiency, and whereas an electric motor up achieves to 85%, it must not be forgotten that the latter, the electricity must be generated beforehand. Often that is not taken into account. Efficiency is essential n the responsible use of our natural resources.


Very early on, people observed that steam can exert a force. Heron of Alexandria demonstrated this vividly with his aeolipile, which we had replicated to show you the principle.

In this film we operated the Aeolipile with steam for you. The steam generated by heat/fire is introduced into the rotatable ball and builds up more and more pressure. The pressure can escape through the two curved tubes on the outside of the ball. When it escapes, the steam displaces the ambient air; it forces the air away. Now in pysicsin physics, force equals counterforce. Here, the counterforce is a recoil that makes the ball spin.

With this arrangement Heron of Alexandria showed that something can be moved with steam. Much later, this knowledge was implemented for steam engines.

By the way, this model was built by apprentice locksmiths in the IHK apprenticeship workshop in Neuwied, the IHK being the “Chamber of Industry and Commerce”.

Origin of the steam engine

Heron of Alexandria showed around 120 BC. with his “Aeolipile” that the power of steam can be transformed into a rotary motion. The device, also known as the Heron's ball, remained without practical use. It was not until the early 18th century that the French Denis Papin and the English Thomas Savery independently from each other constructed the first steam engines that had a practical use. Savery put his machine to commercial use as a mine pump. At 0.1% usable power from the energy used, its efficiency was very low. In 1712 Thomas Newcomen accelerated the cooling of the cylinders by injecting water, thereby shortening the work cycles. This increased the efficiency to 0.5%. Thus, he was able to increase the efficiency to 0.5% - a fivefold increase! From 1764 onwards, James Watt improved the technology decisively: Watt alternately directed the live steam onto the flask from both sides. This is how the double-acting steam engine was created. He also used an external condenser to cool the steam after the work cycle. This increased the efficiency of steam engines to 3% - a further six-fold increase compared to the Savery machine. Finally, Watt transferred the already known principle of the centrifugal governor to the regulation of the live steam supply in order to keep the engine speed constant. Watt's inventions made the steam engine usable for commercial use. As the steam engine only spread through the inventions of Watt, he is now considered by many to be the inventor of the steam engine. However, he built on the preparatory work of others.

Three-cylinder triple expansion steam engine "De Klops, Sliedrecht (NL)" for dri

Three-cylinder triple expansion steam engine "De Klops, Sliedrecht (NL)" for driving paddle steamers, 1898 (on the 1st floor)

You are looking at a 7-ton high-pressure steam engine that was built shortly before 1898 by the “de Klops” company in the Netherlands. The Dutch were a seafaring people.

It is a three-cylinder composite steam engine that uses the expansion of the steam. This steam engine works according to the same principle as the one on the ground floor: after the work cycle in the first cylinder has been completed, the steam is fed into the second and then into the third cylinder. You can see that the three cylinders have different sizes. The high pressure cylinder, which is marked with an “H” on the control levers, is the smallest, followed by the slightly larger medium pressure cylinder, marked with an “M” and the low pressure cylinder marked with an “N”.

Each cylinder was controlled individually. You see the controls next to the piston rods. You can also see an enclosed centrifugal governor made by the company Gardner on top of the machine.

Applying the principle of the multi cylinder composite steam engine you could build very strong and efficient steam engines. Mind you: these slow-moving machines the power in horsepower is far less important than the torque. And these machines had plenty of torque.

The crankshaft has two output sides. On the side in the direction of the door you can see an eccentric that could be used to drive ancillary equipment such as a water pump.

This 300 hp steam engine powered a paddle wheel steamer.

Ships powered by a high pressure steam engine drove twice as fast as ships powered by a low pressure steam engine. Travel times were cut in halv. That was a strong argument in favor of both passenger and cargo shipping.

In order to be able to build powerful machines like this one, you needed good steel. Steel was only developed with the demands that steam engines brought about with their own advent.


Around 1900 the quality and strength of steels were much lower than they are today. Components had to be designed significantly larger in order to be able to take the same strain. Generous safety factors were also necessary in order to allow for uncertainties that could not yet be determined mathematically. The quality of the steel produced also fluctuated greatly. The quality strongly depended on the carbon content, which essentially influences the steel’s hardness and stability. Oxygen inclusions were also a frequent problem that led to the breakage of components. After many optimizations of production processes, the Siemens-Martin process finally resulted in a usable steel. The availability of this process triggered an exponential growth in steel production: in 1867 just 22,000 tons of steel were produced - in 1880 it was already 400 times as much! The performance of steels is inter alia judged according to the tensile strength at which no deformation occurs. This is called the yield point. It has increased sixfold since 1910. Thanks to computer-aided design, significantly improved steels and modern manufacturing technology with more precise fits and smaller tolerances, a steam engine could be built around 75% smaller and over 90% lighter than 100 years ago - with the same performance and considerably improved exhaust quality.

Centrifugal governor based on the locomobile

Centrifugal governor based on the same steam engine and based on the locomobile No. 1, 1862 (on the 1st floor)

This is a model of a “locomobile”, a locomotive that can run on the road. In the second half of the 19th century, locomobile were used to transport both people and loads overland.

In contrast to industrial steam engines, all the components required for the drive are mounted on a mobile platform in locomotives: the furnace, a horizontal boiler, a chimney and the steam engine itself.

This model of a locomobile from 1862 was built built and made available to us by the model maker Probst at the ConRod & Gohner company us. The model is functional and can actually drive on the roead!

Locomotives were powered by steam engines. You can see that on this model. But what you can also see well is a centrifugal governor. This is the delicat mechanism with the two iron balls on top of the boiler of the steam engine. With this centrifugal governor, the speed of the steam engine could be kept constant.

Centrifugal governor

A system that should move within a given area must be regulated.

When the need for machine control arose, there was no electronics. Therefore, the first practical governors were mechanical centrifugal governors. James Watt transferred their application from wind mills to their use in steam engines.

We know the centrifugal force from the chain carousel. The further a mass islocated off the the center of rotation and the faster the carousel rotates, the greater the force that the mass outward.

The governor uses this principle. As the speed of the steam engine's flywheel increases, weights are pulled up and out in the centrifugal governor. A slide is then operated via a linkage, which limits the supply of live steam. With less live steam, the speed drops and, in turn, the weights of the centrifugal governor drop again somewhat in the direction of the axis of rotation of the governor. The main steam slide then opens again a little.

The regulation takes place by a continuous oscillation of the actual values around a preset value.

Model of a ship propulsion system 1-cylinder steam engine from Stuart (1st floor

Here you can see the complete drive train of a ship. One can clearly see that it is a ship that was propelled by a steam engine and that the propulsion power is converted into propulsion via a propeller at the stern of the ship.

If you press and hold the button on the front of the showcase for 2 seconds, the drive starts moving. Watch how the movement is transferred from the steam engine to the propeller.

On the left we have a standing single cylinder steam engine from the English steam engine manufacturer Stuart. You can see the black cylinder nicely. The steam control is also in plain view. The shaft connects directly on the crankshaft lying lengthways in the ship and, via several bearings, up to the four-wing screw.

This illustrative model was built by Mr. Witt from Vallendar and made available to the Rhine Museum.

But also in reality such drives had to be designed, built and tested. These are tasks for engineers to this day.

The emergence of engineering

Until the 19th century steam engines were built by self-taught people.

With the industrial mass production of steam engines, systematic access to knowledge and methods of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, construction and materials science became more and more important. For this reason, in the 1820s, the scientific knowledge of machine technology began to be recorded and documented.

Many of the basics were already known before steam engines were built, other knowledge was only gained when working with steam engines.

The steam engine and the industrialization following its invention founded mechanical engineering and engineering.

Subjects such as materials science, kinematics, kinetics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and later also hydraulics and electrics and electronics have emerged and lead to an ever-increasing diversification into specializations. The challenge now even consists of integrating all of these highly developed disciplines so that well-coordinated machines can be created.

Engineers today are scientifically trained specialists who use their specialist knowledge to create solutions to technical problems and develop promising technologies. For this they need creativity and team spirit as well as social, political and ecological awareness of responsibility.

Steam indicator for measuring the horsepower of a steam engine

Steam indicator for measuring the horsepower of a steam engine (in a showcase on the 1st floor)

You are now standing in front of a case that contains all kinds of parts. What could that be? How does this case relate to steam engines?

Well, this case contains components of a measuring instrument. With this measuring instrument, the steam pressure in the cylinders of steam engines could be measured. The power of the steam engine could be calculated from the pressure. Watch the movie to learn more.

(illustrative film in which the steam indicator is assembled and attached to a cylinder of a steam engine)

Steam indicator

For a long time, customers of steam engine manufacturers had to believe what the salespeople told them.

The first steam engines were installed in 1776. For a long time, however, nobody was able to precisely check performance data on machines.

It took 86 years to invent a suitable measuring device that enabled objective performance comparisons.

The inconspicuous wooden box in the showcase contains one of them. It's high tech from 1862, when this steam indicator was presented at the London International Industrial Exhibition. By the way, that was at a time whenthe first combustion engines were being exhibited, which were later to largely replace the steam engine.

The indicator is screwed tightly to a cylinder. The steam pressure in the machine then acts on a pencil via a piston and spring mechanism. This transfers the development of the steam pressure according to the piston’s movement to a paper that evenly rotates. A warped parallelogram will be drwan. Experts can recognize the quality of the steam engine from the shape and area of the recording and determine its performance very precisely.

Since there have been reliable steam indicators, steam engine salespeople have been able to provide their customers with exact technical data. Steam indicators were also used to optimize the processes in steam engines.

Paddle wheel based on the model "2 horizontal steam engines"

Paddle wheel based on the model "2 horizontal steam engines" (on the 1st floor)

This model shows that sometimes 2 steam engines were installed on ships. In this case it is horizontal steam engines. You can see that the pistons do not work vertically, but horizontally. The crankshaft is behind the cylinders. Horizontal steam engines were preferred for driving paddle wheels.

Please observe that every steam engine drives its own paddle wheel. The paddle wheels were attached to the stern of the ship. They pushed the water backwards, moving the ship forward.

Such a a paddle wheel was built into the model in the showcase: the "Tennessy-New Orleans".It was steered with two oars.

Such drives were well suited for shallow waters with low currents. However, such types of propulsion are completely unsuitable for operation on rivers with a strong currents like the Rhine River.

Steering was done with two oars in front of the paddle wheel at the stern. But these ships did not steer really well. Maneuvers were very time-consuming. On the other hand, the ships with stern paddle wheels were not as wide as ships ships that had their paddle wheels on the side of the hull.

If you take a closer look at such a paddle wheel, you can see that the paddles are firmly attached to the “drum”. Such fixed-blade wheels lead to much loss power due to their up and down movement. Ships with such simple paddlewheels could not make good progress.

Model of a paddle wheel with adjustable blades

Fixed blades wasted a lot of energy for uplift and downforce, . The Power was lost for for propulsion. So shipbuilders were looking for better concepts. The blades should plunge vertically into the water with each rotation of the paddle wheel and remain vertical under water while pressing the water backwards until they emerged. How did they do that? That was a challenge.

You stand in front of a clear model that the IHK trainees built for us in the Neuwied training workshop, the IHK being the “Chamber of Industry and Commerce”

This model visualizes the solution the shipbuilders had found quite clearly: They attached the blades to the drum so they could pivot. They used levers to control the position of the blades depending on the position of the blades in relation to the water. The levers were attached to a ring which was attached eccentrically, i.e. offset to the axis of rotation of the paddle wheel. This is a clever lever mechanism that worked very reliably.

With these eccentrically controlled blade positions, the water could actually be pushed backwards with no or at least redused splashing. The loss of power was reduced considerably. The ships became faster while needing less energy. That paid off economically for the shipowners. Had they already thought of environmental issues back then?

Power transfer into the water

The principle of the paddle wheel goes back to the Roman civil engineer Vitruvius around 100 BC. But it was not until 1782 that the French D’Abbas constructed the first steam-powered paddle wheel ship. First a paddle wheel was attached at the stern of the ships. Later, more and more side paddle wheels were used, which allowed for better steering steer, but also made the ships wider. The weakness of a simple paddle wheel lies in high energy losses. Rigid attached blades cannot generate pure propulsion when going in and oiut of the water. They convert part of the drive power supplied to them into buoyancy when they are immersed and into downforce when the blades are removed from the water. With “Feathering Wheels” variable blade positions were soon implemented. The shovels dipped vertically into the water and pushed the water backwards. Still, paddle wheels were not yet an optimal solution. Josef Resser patented a propeller for ship propulsion as early as 1827. The main advantage of the propeller over the paddle wheel was the significantly higher efficiency and the smaller space requirement. Ships could be built narrower. But the problem of cavitation was new: when objects move quickly in water, they wear out. Over time, larger and larger particles break out of the propeller’s surface. In order to avoid this wear and tear, propellers are now precisely tailored to their intended use. The motor, gearbox, propeller diameter, pitch and inclination of the propeller blades as well as the number and installation position of the propellers must be well coordinated . Modern propellers are often even adjustable.

Deflection of the oscillating movement into rotary movement

Deflection of the oscillating movement into rotary movement based on the steam engine model (in the stairwell, 1st floor)

Here in the stairwell is a particularly beautiful model of an industrial steam engine that can even be set into motion with compressed air.

It is an early form of what is known as a balancer steam engine. The name is derived from the construction principle. The crank mechanism is not located directly under the cylinder. Rather, the piston movement is transmitted via a rocker, the balancer. You can see the crank mechanism under the second end of the balancer. The flywheel is particularly large to compensate for the uneven running of the single cylinder.

Due to their design, such machines ran very slowly.

The model of this steam engine is designed in the same way as steam engines were typically used to drive pumps in mines.

On this model you can see very nicely how the individual components of the steam engine work together.

This very carefully crafted model was built by Mr. H. Witt from Vallendar and kindly made available to the museum.

You can see particularly well how the oscillating movement of the piston rod is converted into a rotary movement of the large flywheel. A simple lever construction with a joint is used for this. The second lever can pivot. One end is attached to the joint on the piston rod while its other end is attached to the flywheel outside the axis of rotation. When the piston rod moves, it sets the flywheel into rotary motion using this simple lever mechanism.

By the way: do you actually know why the flywheel is so big? The flywheel has a large mass. Great masses have great indolence. You know that when you want to brake your car. The car that is in motion does not stop immediately because its entire inertial mass has to be braked first. The brakes need to convert the kinetic energy of your car into thermal energy. This realization that moving bodies have energy is used with the flywheel. Once the flywheel turns, it helps overcome what are known as “dead points”, where the direction of the piston rod reverses, and keep it turning smoothly. So the steam engine can be better used as a work machine.

Speaking of 'work machine': Various machine tools can be connected to such a steam engine via belt drives. That way, in the 19th century, machines in factories were driven. Also, a generator could also be connected to produce electricity. Incidentally, modern steam turbines are still used in power plants today, which generate electricity via generators. So the principle of the steam engine lives on - in highly efficient processes!

Model of the paddle steam tug 'Franz Haniel X', 1902 (on the 2nd floor)

Steam engines were used, among other things, to propel tugs. Here you can see a model of a typical tugboat, 77 meter long that was powered by a steam engine.

Around the year 1830, such tugboats replaced the so called “Tauerschiffe” (literally towing ships) which still had to pull (or tow) themselves laboriously upstream using rope sheaves on 40 mm thick wire ropes laid in the Rhine River. By the way, you can see what that looked like in the large showcase about the tugboats that is on the first floor.

Equipped with steam engines of up to 2000 hp and paddle wheels, cargo ships could now sail independently in the Rhine River- without a rope. They were independent and had more drive power. Such tugboats could pull up to 8 barges.

It was not until 1880 that the paddle wheels were gradually exchanged for the ship propellers that are common today. This allowed the ships to be built narrower. Ships with propeller drive were initially not as powerful and had a larger draft than paddle steamers. That is why they ware only gradually gaining ground.

The tugboats were equipped with winches and rope clamps. The wire ropes were clamped on deck with the rope clamps, which you can see on the model. The entire tensile force lay on these clamps. In addition, the ropes did not rub against the deck.

The two boilers show tat least one steam engine was installed. Unfortunately, you cannot see whether it was one or two steam engines which were installed.

Performance of steam engines

The performance of a machine is the product the power times the distance per time. James Watt related the performance of a machine to the performance of work horses. His "Imperial Horsepower" related to lifting 550 pounds one foot in one second. This was equivalent to about 249 kilograms and 30.5 cm. The continental European metric horsepower referred lifting to 75kg by 1 meter per second. So the British horses were apparently a bit stronger: a fully developed steam engine with a piston that, with a diameter of 50 cm and a stroke of 1 m, performed a working speed of two strokes per second, could produce around 212 hp. This required around 17 cubic meters or 30 kilos of steam per horsepower and hour. Around 150 kg of coal per operating hour are required to generate the steam for 212 hp. A modern diesel car needs much less fuel because it contains more energy and because the efficiency of a modern diesel engine is higher than that of a steam engine. However, the degree of efficiency is only about 2.35 times higher. Furthermore, one must also see that the steam engine weighed about 14 tons, the car engine with the same output only about 168 kg. The power to weight ratios, i.e. the performance per kilogram of machine weight, differ by 8,500 times! But there is another important aspect: the torque. Our example machine delivers a torque of over 12,000 Newton meters at 120 revolutions per minute. The car engine, on the other hand, only reaches around 300 Newton meters at 5000 revolutions per minute. The diesel engine only delivers a 40th of the torque of a steam engine.

Tug boat trips (in the adjoining room, 1st floor)

You have already seen a model of a tugboat on this tour, but not yet how these tugboats were used. That you can see in the display in this showcase.

On the left of showcase you can see the “Peter Küppers” tugboat, which apparently operated two firing systems and two steam boilers. You can tell from the two chimneys. The steam engines drove two side paddle wheels. The rope clamps are unfortunately not shown on this model. But you can clearly see that the tugboat has aboard all the ropes to pull the barges.

In the past, such tugboats drove on the Rhine River and pulled up to 8 barges.

To do this, the tug pulled up close to the anchored barge to be towed and the tug#s crew passed a towing wire to barges’ crew which they attached to the barge using a so-called 'Brittelhooks'. The barges then dropped back behind the tugboat until finally they were being towed behind once the towing wire was taut. If other barges wanted to join, they were also picked up by the tugboat and integrated into the existing association. The tow trains could reach lengths of one kilometer.

Upstream, the barges were towed one after the other (in keel line) up the Rhine River. That way, they had less water resistance. Downstream, barges were towed side by side. Not only the tugboat but also every boat had to be steered with a rudder . Several men had to pull their weight at the large steering wheels with a diameter of up to 6 m. Because it was not only exhausting but also labor-intensive, steam-powered rowing machines were later installed, which acted like power steering.

If a barge wanted to detach itself from the network, they released their towing wire from the ship and let themselves drift into the harbor. There they were pulled ashore with locomotives or winches. The crew had to skow down the boat by hand.

Until 1967 one could see tow formations on the Rhine River . Eversince, all ships have been sailing on their own.

Painting of Rhine shipping with a lot of smoke gases

The invention of the steam engine, which inter alia was used to drive ships in the 19th century, was a great relief for the people. People and goods could now be transported on the Rhine River independently of muscle power, wind and cables. The time required for travel and transportation was greatly reduced. With the use of steam, everything began to accelerate.

On this painting by Princess Charlotte von Preußen you can see what the steam engines did to our air in the 19th century.

The smoke from the chimneys darkened the sky. You could hardly see the sun. Many remember that until the late 1960s this was the case in the Ruhr River area, which was heavily industrialized.

Unfortunately, it wasn't until much later that people realized that not only could they hardly see the sun, but that the exhaust gases were also damaging our health and our climate.
The working conditions in industry or on a steamboat were also tough and demanded a lot of people.

Every coin has two sides. This was also recognized with industrialization.

Exhaust gases and the environment

The thick white smoke of old steam engines consists mainly of harmless water vapor. Depending on the quality of the fuel, the quality of the system and the experience of the stoker, however, many toxic or environmentally harmful substances are also released into the environment.

Today we have better technology to avoid the carcinogenic hydrocarbons or carbon monoxide that can cause heart or kidney disease. In addition, one avoids the toxic heavy metals in the air. Sulfur oxides are also avoided because they acidify soils.

Modern internal combustion engines are now highly developed. There are complex processes for controlling combustion and exhaust gas. However, the consumption of fossil fuels remains an irreversible process. In spite of all technical progress, this is the central weakness oft he use of fossil fuels.

The exhaust gases from steam engines are however not in every respect worse than those of modern combustion engines: the old steam engines also emit less fine dust and fewer nitrogen oxides than modern combustion engines.

Modern steam engines can be operated very efficiently with renewable raw materials. In this way, climate-friendly cycle processes may be achieved.

Under the premise that the steam is generated in a resource-saving manner, modern steam engines are even superior to combustion engines in many ways. The principle of the steam engine is still used today in modern steam turbines for power plants.


The steam engine made industrialization possible in the 19th century. Economy and society changed radically. Industrialization created jobs and growth in cities, but it uprooted workers socially and made them dependent on the industry. Working-class families lived in unimaginable poverty. Malnutrition, illness, work accidents and, hence, existential fear were constant problems. For a long time, states and the churches just allowed their suffering and did nothing. Union organization and initiatives on the part of entrepreneurs ultimately also drove the state to legislation to improve conditions. Today vacation, health insurance and occupational safety are a given. Still, the gap between wage workers and people who can live on capital assets persists. While digital networking of industry and trade opens up new opportunities for resourceful entrepreneurs, the gap between “the poor” and “the rich” continues to grow. Capital earned in the industrial age finances new business models. Digitalization would be inconceivable today without the steam engine and industrialization.

Diesel engine on the ground floor (on the ground floor)

The physical work on the steam engines was very hard. It was hot and dirty too. Gradually the workers fought for more rights and had to be paid better and better wages. Business became more expensive for ship operators. In addition, the old steam engines emitted a lot of dangerous exhaust gas that harmed people, animals and our environment in general. All these points spoke against the further use of steam engines at the end of the 19th century.

By then, the diesel and gasoline engines had already been invented and were becoming more powerful and reliable. Soon the diesel engine was so advanced that it was suitable for the propulsionog ships. In the 1950s and 1960s, the diesel engine replaced the steam engine as a ship propulsion system.

You are now standing in front of such a marine diesel engine from the Motoren-Werke Mannheim with 128 hp, which was built in 1952. Propulsion of ships with such an engine required fewer personnel, was cleaner and did not take up as much space on the ships. Not only was the engine much smaller than a steam engine while putting out the same power. Above all, there was no need for steam boilers anymore, which had taken up a lot of space on steamers. So you had more space to take aboard passengers and load goods.

Such engines soon became the typical engines for all medium-sized, self-propelled ships.

The development of engines built on the experience with steam engines. Engines also work on the principle of burning fuel with air, not much different than in the combustion of steam engines. But the combustion no longer takes place outside the machine, as was the case in the furnace of the steam engine, but in the engine itself. The expansion of the ignited mixture of fuel acts directly on the pistons. The step over the steam is saved with engines. Engineers speak of 'internal combustion', while steam engines work with 'external combustion'. However, the expansion of the combustion gasses only affect the pistons on one side, not on both sides, as is the case with modern steam engines.

Another parallel can be seen in the crankshaft: the engine’s vibrations are being kept low using flywheels.

Internal combustion engines, however, ran at much higher speeds than steam engines, but did not have as much torque. This engine ran at 1.000 Revolutions per minute. That is why gears are usually used to reduce speed and while increasing the torque.

Successor to the steam engine

Since the end of the 19th century, smaller steam engines have increasingly been replaced by internal combustion engines. Otto and diesel engines achieved a higher degree of efficiency, were smaller in size and had a much more favourable power to weight ratio than steam engines. The power-to-weight ratio is the ratio of power, for example in [PS] to the weight of the machine in [kg]. Favourable power-to-weight ratios were particularly interesting for land vehicles. Locomotives were partly equipped with diesel engines, partly also with electric motors, which were lighter and more powerful and at that time enabled lower operating costs. In addition, diesel and electric motors were more environmentally friendly than steam engines. On ships, steam engines were almost completely replaced by diesel engines, which enabled higher performance with comparatively lower operating costs and considerably less space. Power plants converted from steam engines to steam turbines in order to develop a higher degree of efficiency. Gas turbines were later used in power plants. If we were to build steam engines with the materials, technologies and manufacturing processes available today, they could certainly compete with modern internal combustion engines. Will we see a renaissance of the steam engine?

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation describes a process in which the traditional is radically replaced by something new. This “new” can be materials, but also processes or technologies.

New materials, technologies or processes are often inferior to established ones at first. They only achieve their full performance after a start-up phase and become competitive. However, if providers rely only on what their existing customers know and want today, there is a risk of missing out on necessary developments.

This was the case with steam engines. It was laborious to adapt ship constructions to large and heavy steam engines. Many shipyards shied away from the conversion effort. At the latest when ships with steam engines were able to cross oceans, there was no longer any great demand for cargo clippers. Shipyards that could not install steam engines disappeared.

The need for personal comfort can clash with a culture of innovation. Possible opportunities are then possibly not recognized or even suppressed. For a while that often goes quite well. Inertia prolongs what people have become used to and makes it difficult for new to break through. But if the time is ripe for a change, the situation can turn disruptive. Markets develop in a completely new way, the rules of the game change suddenly as do players. Sometimes even the playing field changes.

People are afraid of such disruptive changes. But fresh ideas that are useful to people have almost always caught on.

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