How Did Steam Engines Change the World?

Steam engines enabled advancements in transportation and trade by powering steamships and locomotives that carried people and goods. Steam engines played a large role in facilitating Britain's emergence as a world power during the 19th century. These engines proved powerful and reliable; as a result, they helped Britain expand its economy and engage in long-distance movement of people and products.

Although the modern steam engine appeared around 1800, engineers and inventors from around the world created earlier models. The first steam engine appeared in the 1st century A.D.; historians credit Alexandrian engineers with that invention. However, steam engine technology proved insufficient until the 17th century for providing significant amounts of power. In 1800, British engineers and scientists, including Matthew Boulton, significantly improved the power output and durability of steam engines. Steam engines first saw widespread use for land transportation in the early 1800s and for water transportation during the 1820s. They appeared first in steamships in around 1802, helping to power boats from England and Scotland across the Atlantic. Steam engines equipped passenger and cargo trains during the 1820s. In turn, England expanded its economic output, as goods reached destinations within and outside England much more rapidly. Steam-powered trains sparked a desire for travel, and allowed people to visit new destinations.