Sign up ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I vaguely remember seeing a documentary on the history channel that was discussion on ancient Chinese technology. The basic theme of the program was that China developed many industrial technologies well in advance of the western world, although many designs/techniques were lost to time. One of the inventions in ancient China was an early steam engine. Unlike the one developed by Heron in ancient Rome this device was applied to industry and not a plaything for the wealthy.

I was wondering if anyone knows anything about this? I have a really bad memory I don't trust, and the history channel I trust even less (considering that their programming is virtually half reality shows and the other half is crap related to Nostradamus, secret bible codes, and aliens). Either my memory or the "History" channel could have greatly exaggerated the facts here (or completely made them up).

share|improve this question
Yup on the "History" channel. I wonder how long before they decide to rename it to "hity" or something. –  T.E.D. May 11 '12 at 20:12
2… This looks credible and doesn't say anything on China creating the steam engine. The history channel used to be good. Now all they have is a show on pawn shops :( –  Russell May 12 '12 at 13:37
I'm gonna defend Pawn Stars - it's the only worthwhile thing on the channel. Every show, they give some interesting lesson on American or World history, and the charming cast pays rapt attention to historians and other experts. The lesson of the show is that history is valuable and interesting - I'm happy it's as popular as it is. –  RI Swamp Yankee Feb 8 '13 at 12:25
A lot of the supposed early Chinese technology is highly exaggerated. Some historians think it is cool to suggest advanced Chinese technology based on flimsy evidence they would never believe if it came from Europe or the Middle East. A lot of claims are based on 17th and 18th century Chinese encyclopedias that systematically provided false antiquities for many inventions. In many cases such claims are provably false. Japanese history is the same way. The Japanese claim everything, including the light bulb, was invented by a Japanese. –  Tyler Durden May 13 '14 at 15:42
Also, I would add that a steam engine requires certain types of metalworking technology that was completely absent in China until the 20th century, so not only did the Chinese not invent the steam engine, I don't think they could even build a steam engine until after 1900. –  Tyler Durden May 13 '14 at 15:54

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I've searched the web, and as far as I can see, Heron designed the first steam engine, Savery, a British military engineer received the first patent, Newcoman created it, and Watt improved it. There is nothing about China on the web. (except for the conspiracy websites) Based on the lack of information, I'd say that China didn't invent it. (I'm going to do more research)

UPDATE: You might want to take a look at Chinas Tiangong Kaiwu. They show a picture but I can't figure out what is going on in it. (It is in 繁体字 when I can only really read 简体字 well.)

UPTATE 2: Can anyone find the english translation of Tiangong Kaiwu? If someone could find the book: World Cat OCLC Number: 123233547 it would help me a lot (or the Chinese coal mining text, I can't seem to find that)

UPTADE 3: As far as I can tell, the words on the pipe in the picture looks nothing like 發動機, engine in english, nor 蒸汽, steam. The picture also has an absence of a boiler, a piston, the 6 or so pumps that make up a Newcomen engine, and most of all water. Based of the lack of evidence (and because History said so :D ), I'd say that the Chinese never invented the steam engine.

Tiangong Kaiwu coal mining

Tiangong Kaiwu

Full Text No Pics: Full Text With Pics:

share|improve this answer
The Tiangong Kaiwu is apparently the masterwork of Song Yingxing, a Chinese scientist of the late 1587-1666 AD. The Tiangong Kaiwu is a broad technical encyclopedia and the picture listed here is related to Chinese coal mining. –  BrotherJack May 14 '12 at 19:12
@BrotherJack, Sorry I wasn't able to add the updates, but my internet was down. I'm looking at the coal-mines because, from my research in European coal-mines, they used steam power to pump air into the mines. I'm looking in the Tiangong Kaiwu to see if the Chinese used steam in the mines. Now that my internet is back, I'll be able to do more research. (And unfortunately translate mining part of the text) –  Russell May 17 '12 at 10:22

The Genius of China by Robert Temple may possess your answer. They were first used in steamboats hundreds of years before the Europeans got wind of them.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to the site. I've added a link and touched up your grammar wee a bit. –  T.E.D. Feb 8 '13 at 2:02
How credible is this book? I've seen some scathing reviews on it on amazon. –  Felix Goldberg Feb 8 '13 at 12:06

You may be thinking of the Ancient Discoveries series. The episode on the steam engine had a mention of China, but on a different topic.

Steam engines, due to the heat and pressure of steam, require strong metal fittings which was technology not available anywhere in the far east until the 19th century. The rotating ball of Heron I would consider to be a jet, not a steam engine, because it has no mechanism. The fundamental mechanisms of the steam engine are the crank, the piston, and the governor, the last two being the difficult parts.

share|improve this answer
I was just about to make the exact same comment regarding Heron's aeolipile in reponse to Russell's answer when I scrolled down and saw this. +1 :) –  David H Jan 6 at 15:01

Around 1671CE two turbine steam engined devices were presented by the Jesuit Friar Min-Ming Wo to for the Khang-Hsi emperor.

Joseph Needham and Wang Ling. Mechanical Engineering. In Science and Civilisation in China Vol 4 (Physics and Physical Technology) Book 2. CUP 1965: p225ff.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.