Energy: Water Wheels, Steam Engines, and Coal
Frameworks for America's Past
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Energy for growing industries:
From water wheels to steam engines and coal

Water power

   Water wheels were common sources of energy in America throughout the 1800s and even into the early 1900s.  Water from a nearby lake or river flows over the top of the wheel.  As the wheel turns, it powers the machinery inside the building.

   The mill shown on the right was built in Wisconsin in 1864.  The water wheel turned large millstones inside the building that were used to grind wheat into flour.

   Many early factories for making textiles (cloth) used water wheels to power the weaving machines.  Saw mills to cut trees into lumber were also powered this way.

   Water wheels have the advantage of using a free source of energy: falling water.  They have one big disadvantage, however.  They can only be built near a reliable source of water.

Steam engines take over

    By the time the Civil War ended, the steam engine was becoming the most important new source of energy for America's industries.  The advertisement below, from 1867, is for a steam engine and saw mill for cutting trees into lumber. 

   Notice that the ad also shows a steam locomotive pulling a train.  Further back, it shows a steam engine powering a thresher, which is a farm machine that separates wheat grain from the stalks.  The ad reflects the spirit of that time, when steam power, industry, and progress seemed to go hand-in-hand.

A closer look at the steam engine

   The photo below shows a closer view of the steam engine in the advertisement above.  Steam engines like this could develop as much power as a water wheel, at less cost, and they could be put wherever they were needed.  

Inside a steam powered factory

   The photo below from 1908 shows machinery in a textile (cloth weaving) factory powered by a steam engine.  This factory was in North Carolina.  It was much larger than earlier textile factories that used water wheels as a source of power.

Coal was a growing source of energy

   Coal became the fuel most commonly used for steam engines, although wood was sometimes used.  Heat from burning coal or wood boils water into steam, which powers the engine.  The old stereoscope photo card below shows two men working underground in a coal mine near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

What coal looks like

   The photo below shows pieces of coal after the large chucks have been broken up to the size used for burning in steam engines.  They are a little larger, and a little heavier, than the charcoal lumps used for cookouts.  (Charcoal is not coal - it is made by heating wood.)

Coal was also needed for steel making

   Coal is widely used as a heat source in steel making and other metal industries.  The photo below shows a steel mill near Pittsburgh in 1905.  

Looking deeper:
Are any steam engines still working today?

Many Americans make a hobby of finding and keeping old steam engines in working order.  You can often see them at county fairs in farming areas.  Sometimes there are special events called Steam Fairs or Steam Rallies.  Many of these hobbyists post videos of their machines on YouTube.  Here is one that was recently posted:

   You can find other examples of old steam engines by searching YouTube with phrases like "mill steam engine," "factory steam engine," and "steam engine museum." 

The historical photos are from the Library of Congress.
The color photo showing pieces of coal is by David Burns.
Some have been edited or resized for this page.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2009, 2016 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.