Why Don’t We Use Steam Power Anymore?
For all you steampunk romance fans and steampunk mystery huggers, maybe you’re wondering why we don’t use steam power anymore? Being the cornerstone of the steampunk ethos, what REALLY happened that loosened this technology’s grip on society?
This question is wrong. Or at least, backwards. We use steam power every day. Just not in the way you’re thinking.
Steam power can be traced back to ancient days, but it really grew in the 1600s, in the days of Sir Isaac Newton.
Development of steam power grew much faster in the 1700s, with many different forms. One of the most notable engineers of this trend setting technology was James Watt. Yes, the one whom the SI unit of power, the watt, is named after.
James Watt made revolutionary changes to the steam engine in the late 1700s, most notably reducing waste and increasing usage.
His changes fueled the explosion of the industrial revolution which ran into the early 1800s. Those times may conjure images of Oliver Twist, long work hours, and skies blighted with smog due to all the fuel burned to generate steam.
But this era also broke the mold of feudal economies. A middle class sprung up where people could earn a living without being the prince or the pauper. So it was a bittersweet era.
With all these leaps forward in steam power, what it is that forever altered its future? One word—electricity.
Steam power provided a fluid that could carry out work, but it had a limited range. You couldn’t build up Steam and transport it a thousand miles away. Steam power was a local thing.
Benjamin Franklin, perhaps one of the most famous scientists of this era, may have tinkered with electricity in the 18th century. But it was the 19th century when we really got to grips with understanding how to create electricity and use it to do work.
Not only could electricity be used to do work, it could be transported long distances. Electricity doesn’t “cool off” like hot gaseous steam. There are transmission losses but they’re manageable if you just step up the voltage.
Once we had a handle on generating sustained electricity, people scrambled to redesign engines. Instead of pumping high pressure, high temperature steam, they use differential sources (heat, water, whatever) to crank out electrical current.
Today’s power sources often generate heat from various sources: nuclear heat, coal plants, and natural gas all burn to heat up water and generate steam. And that Steam is piped into nearby, highly tuned turbines that convert the energy to electrical power.
Hence, we still use steam power. But it’s quickly transformed into electrical power. Which can be “beamed” to just about anywhere.