Timeline of heat engine technology

This Timeline of heat engine technology describes how heat engines have been known since antiquity but have been made into increasingly useful devices since the 17th century as a better understanding of the processes involved was gained. They continue to be developed today.

In engineering and thermodynamics, a heat engine performs the conversion of heat energy to mechanical work by exploiting the temperature gradient between a hot "source" and a cold "sink". Heat is transferred to the sink from the source, and in this process some of the heat is converted into work.

A heat pump is a heat engine run in reverse. Work is used to create a heat differential. The timeline includes devices classed as both engines and pumps, as well as identifying significant leaps in human understanding.

Pre-Seventeenth century

  • Prehistory - The fire piston used by tribes in southeast Asia and the Pacific islands to kindle fire.
  • c. 450 BC - Archytas of Tarentum used a jet of steam to propel a toy wooden bird suspended on wire.[1]
  • c. 50 AD - Hero of Alexandria's Engine, also known as Aeolipile. Demonstrates rotary motion produced by the reaction from jets of steam.[2]
  • c. 10th century - China develops the earliest fire lances which were spear-like weapons combining a bamboo tube containing gunpowder and shrapnel like projectiles tied to a spear.
  • c 12th century - China, the earliest depiction of a gun showing a metal body and a tight-fitting projectile which maximises the conversion of the hot gases to forward motion.[3]
  • 1125 - Gerbert, a professor in the schools at Rheims designed and built an organ blown by air escaping from a vessel in which it was compressed by heated water.[4]
  • 1232 - First recorded use of a rocket. In a battle between the Chinese and the Mongols. ( see Timeline of rocket and missile technology for a view of rocket development through time.)
  • c. 1500 - Leonardo da Vinci builds the Architonnerre, a steam-powered cannon.[5]
  • 1543 - Blasco de Garay, a Spanish naval officer demonstrates a boat propelled without oars or sail that utilised the reaction from a jet issued from a large boiling kettle of water.[4]
  • 1551 - Taqi al-Din demonstrates a steam turbine, used to rotate a spit.[6]

Seventeenth century

  • 1629 - Giovanni Branca demonstrates a steam turbine. [2] [7]
  • 1662 - Robert Boyle publishes Boyle's Law which defines the relationship between volume and pressure in a gas at a constant temperature.
  • 1665 - Edward Somerset, the Second Marquess of Worcester builds a working steam fountain.
  • 1680 - Christiaan Huygens publishes a design for a piston engine powered by gunpowder but it is never built.
  • 1690 - Denis Papin - produces design for the first piston steam engine.
  • 1698 - Thomas Savery builds a pistonless steam-powered water pump for pumping water out of mines.

Eighteenth century

  • 1707 - Denis Papin - produces design for his second piston steam engine in conjunction with Gottfried Leibniz.
  • 1712 - Thomas Newcomen builds the first commercially successful piston-and-cylinder steam-powered water pump for pumping water out of mines. It is known as an atmospheric engine and operates by condensing steam in a cylinder to produce a vacuum which moves the piston by atmospheric pressure.
  • 1748 - William Cullen demonstrates the first artificial refrigeration in a public lecture at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
  • 1759 - John Harrison uses a bimetallic strip in his third marine chronometer (H3) to compensate for temperature-induced changes in the balance spring. This converts thermal expansion and contraction in two dissimilar solids to mechanical work.
  • 1769 - James Watt patents his first improved atmospheric steam engine, see Watt steam engine with a separate condenser outside the cylinder, doubling the efficiency of earlier engines.
  • 1787 - Jacques Charles formulates Charles's law which describes the relationship between as gas's volume and temperature. He does not publish this however and it is not recognised until Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac develops and references it in 1802.
  • 1791 - John Barber patents the idea of a gas turbine.
  • 1799 - Richard Trevithick builds the first high pressure steam engine. This used the force from pressurized steam to move the piston.

Nineteenth century

Twentieth century

  • 1909, the Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes develops the concept of enthalpy for the measure of the "useful" work that can be obtained from a closed thermodynamic system at a constant pressure.
  • 1913 - Nikola Tesla patents the Tesla turbine based on the Boundary layer effect.
  • 1926 - Robert Goddard of the USA launches the first liquid fuel rocket.
  • 1929 - Felix Wankel patents the Wankel rotary engine (U.S. Patent 2,988,008)
  • 1929 -  Leó Szilárd, in a refinement of the famous Maxwell's demon scenario conceives of a heat engine that can run on information alone, known as the Szilard engine.
  • 1930 - Sir Frank Whittle in England patents the first design for a gas turbine for jet propulsion.
  • 1933 - French physicist Georges J. Ranque invents the Vortex tube, a fluid flow device without moving parts, that can separate a compressed gas into hot and cold streams.
  • 1935 - Ralph H. Fowler invents the title 'the zeroth law of thermodynamics' to summarise postulates made by earlier physicists that, thermal equilibrium between systems is a transitive relation.
  • 1937 - Hans von Ohain builds a gas turbine
  • 1940 - Hungarian Bela Karlovitz working for the Westinghouse company in the USA files the first patent for a magnetohydrodynamic generator, which can generate electricity directly from a hot moving gas
  • 1942 - R.S. Gaugler of General Motors patents the idea of the Heat pipe, a heat transfer mechanism that combines the principles of both thermal conductivity and phase transition to efficiently manage the transfer of heat between two solid interfaces.
  • 1950s - The Philips company develop the Stirling-cycle Stirling Cryocooler which converts mechanical energy to a temperature difference.
  • 1959 -  Geusic, Schultz-DuBois and Scoville of Bell Telephone Laboratories USA build a Three Level Maser which runs as a quantum heat engine extracting work from the temperature difference of two heat pools.
  • 1962 - William J. Buehler and Frederick Wang discover the Nickel titanium alloy known as Nitinol which has a shape memory dependent on its temperature.
  • 1992 - The first practical magnetohydrodynamic generators are built in Serbia and the USA.

Twenty-first century

See also


  • The Growth Of The Steam-Engine Robert H. Thurston, A. M., C. E., New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1878.
  • Thermal Engineering in Power Systems By Ryoichi Amano, Bengt Sundén, Page 40, chapter 'Brief History of energy conversion'. Volume 22 of Developments in Heat Transfer Series, International series on developments in heat transfer, v. 22, WIT Press, 2008 ISBN 1-84564-062-4, ISBN 978-1-84564-062-0


  1. Hellemans, Alexander; et al. (1991). ""The Timetables of Science: A Chronology of the Most Important People and Events in the History of Science"". New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1991.
  2. Hero (1851) [reprint of 1st century CE original], "Section 50 – The Steam Engine". Translated from the original Greek by Bennet Woodcroft (Professor of Machinery in University College London.
  3. Needham, Joseph (1986), Science & Civilisation in China, V:7: The Gunpowder Epic, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-30358-3
  4. 1 2 Reid, Hugo (1838). The Steam-engine: Being a Popular Description of the Construction and Action of that Engine; with a Sketch of Its History, and of the Laws of Heat and Pneumatics . Edinburgh: William Tait. p. 74.
  5. Thurston, Robert Henry (1996). A History of the Growth of the Steam-Engine (reprint ed.). Elibron. p. 12. ISBN 1-4021-6205-7.
  6. Hassan, Ahmad Y. "Taqi al-Din and the First Steam Turbine". History of Science and Technology in Islam. Archived from the original on February 18, 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-29.
  7. Full title:Le Machine volume nuovo, et di molto artificio da fare effetti maravigliosi tanto Spiritali quanto di Animale Operatione, arichito di bellissime figure. Del Sig. Giovanni Branco, Cittadino Romano. In Roma, 1629
  8. "The History of the Automobile - Gas Engines". About.com. 2009-09-11. Retrieved 2009-10-19.
  9. The Griffin Engineering Company, of Bath, Somerset Archived 2007-05-13 at the Wayback Machine. University Of Bath, 15 December 2004. Accessed May 2011
  10. Shoichi Toyabe; Takahiro Sagawa; Masahito Ueda; Eiro Muneyuki; Masaki Sano (2010-09-29). "Information heat engine: converting information to energy by feedback control". Nature Physics. 6 (12): 988–992. arXiv:1009.5287. Bibcode: 2011NatPh...6..988T. doi:10.1038/nphys1821. We demonstrated that free energy is obtained by a feedback control using the information about the system; information is converted to free energy, as the first realization of Szilard-type Maxwell’s demon.
  11. Michigan State University: Wave Disk Engine U.S. Department of Energy, Advanced Research Projects Agency, March 2011
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