Denis Papin (1647 – 1712)
The latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Denis Papin, is proof positive that being a genius isn’t necessarily a key to fame and fortune. Sometimes life deals you a hand of cards which dooms you from the start.
Papin was born in France in Chitenay a protestant and, more importantly and disastrously, a Huguenot. His childhood was fairly conventional and from around 1661 he studied medicine at the University of Angers, graduating with a degree in medicine in 1669. Whilst working with Christiaan Huygens and Gottfried Liebniz in Paris four years later he became interested in the idea of using a vacuum to generate motive power.
Working with Robert Boyle between 1676 and 1679 in London he developed a steam digester which was an early form of pressure cooker with a safety valve, giving a talk to the Royal Society about his invention in 1679. During the 1680s it was dangerous for a Huguenot to remain in France and so he joined his fellow religionists in Germany. The threat of persecution if anything heightened his creative talents and in 1689 he came up with another brain wave – using a force pump or a pair of bellows to maintain the pressure of and supply of fresh air in a diving bell. John Smeaton went on to incorporate this design in his diving bell in 1789.
Our hero’s observations on the mechanical power of atmospheric pressure on his digester led him in 1690 to build the first ever model of a piston steam engine. Papin continued to experiment with pressure and steam as a means of locomotion and in 1705, in conjunction with Liebniz, developed a second steam engine which employed steam pressure. Details of the invention were published in 1707.
Whilst in Kassel in 1704 Papin constructed a ship powered by his steam engine, using paddles as its method of propulsion – the first steam-powered vessel and, indeed, vehicle, ever to be produced.
Papin was on the move again, returning to London in 1707, although it seems that he left Madame Papin in Germany. A number of his ideas and papers were read to and published by the Royal Society over the next five years but poor Papin neither received credit nor, more importantly, remuneration for his brilliance and ingenuity. Some effectively stole his ideas and used them to find their fame and fortune. The most notorious example was that of Thomas Newcomen who used Papin’s 1690 description of his atmospheric steam engine to develop the first practical steam engine for pumping out water. We remember Newcomen, not Papin.
The last definitive mention of our hero was in January 1712. He was on his uppers and bemoaning his fate. He died, it is thought, later that year and was buried unceremoniously in an unmarked pauper’s pit.
Denis Papin, as a pioneer of steam locomotion, you are a worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.
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