Although Newcomen (1663-1729) was dead before the Industrial Revolution really got under way, his atmospheric engine was the first practical, powered device designed to help industry.
Used as a pump, it cleared water from the mines and opened up new and deeper seams of coal, tin and copper. Later engineers and inventors improved it to the point where it became efficient enough to power the cotton mills whose vast profits bankrolled the building of the British Empire.
Many men had experimented with steam power before Newcomen - Frenchman Dionysus Papin, for instance, came agonisingly close to perfecting an engine, but didn't think to separate the boiler from the cylinder and produced, instead, the world's first pressure cooker. Newcomen was the first to bring together all the vital elements of a steam engine in one successful package - the cylinder, piston and a separate boiler.
But the blacksmith and ironmonger who was also a Baptist preacher in the naval port of Dartmouth, in Devon, found himself in a predicament when he designed his engine.
Another Devonian called Thomas Savery (1650-1715) had filed a patent in 1698 for "an engine to raise water by the impellant force of fire." In fact, Savery's device was not an engine at all - it had no moving parts and was intrinsically dangerous, because it used high-pressure steam acting directly on the water being raised.
Savery christened his machine "The Miner's Friend" but the miners themselves were not impressed. The maximum lift of the pump was a mere 60 feet, so a mine with a depth of several hundred feet would have required a series of "Friends" at strategec intervals down the shaft, raising water to the surface in stages.
This was a prospect that signally failed to thrill the mine owners, and although a few of Savery's pumps were built they were used mainly above ground.
However, Savery had worded his patent cleverly, so to avoid an infringement, Newcomen was forced to go into partnership with his fellow West-countryman.