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).

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    Yup on the "History" channel. I wonder how long before they decide to rename it to "hity" or something.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 11, 2012 at 20:12
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    homepages.paradise.net.nz/rochelle.f/… 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
    Commented May 12, 2012 at 13:37
  • 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. Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 1:36
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    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. Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 12:25
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    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. Commented May 13, 2014 at 15:42

5 Answers 5


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)

http://homepages.paradise.net.nz/rochelle.f/The-Discovery-of-steam-power.html http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blsteamengine.htm

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: http://www.chinapage.com/science/tiangongkaiwu/tgkw-gb2006.html Full Text With Pics: http://www.chinapage.com/science/tiangongkaiwu/tgkw-chinese.html

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    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. Commented May 14, 2012 at 19:12
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    @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
    Commented May 17, 2012 at 10:22
  • That picture looks a great deal like a ventilation system: light a fire under the pipe, and the heat causes stale air to rise, bringing fresh air down into the pit. Ideally, you'd want to use separate updraft and downdraft pits for improved safety and effectiveness, but all too often, mine owners would save money by using a single pit and a physical barrier.
    – Mark
    Commented Apr 23, 2019 at 1:27

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.

  • 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
    Commented Jan 6, 2015 at 15:01
  • Would a device such as a vertical pipe filled with steam with one end in water that would draw the water upward less than about 32 feet when the steam is condensed be considered a steam engine?
    – TomO
    Commented Sep 30, 2017 at 19:49

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.


Short Answer

Yes China had a complex machine run off of steam power during the Song Dynasty 960-1279 AD. But that machine was not the equivalent of the machine developed in by the Scottsman James Watt and still wasn't the first iteration of the Steam Engine. The first steam engine was produced in the first century Egypt. The Ottoman empire had a steam engine in the Sixteenth Century. England produced a steam engine in the seventeenth century England by Thomas Savory. So Watts isn't credited with the first steam engine but the first commercially viable engine which was broadly adapted to rail, shipping and industrial uses which the earlier iterations including china's were not suited to.

Detailed Answer

First rudimentary steam engine was the Aeolipile produced in the first century in Roman Egypt. In this light one can also say China had the steam engine during the Song Dynasty(960-1279).

History of Steam Engine
The first recorded rudimentary steam engine was the aeolipile described by Heron of Alexandria in 1st-century Roman Egypt.1 Several steam-powered devices were later experimented with or proposed, such as Taqi al-Din's steam jack, a steam turbine in 16th-century Ottoman Egypt, and Thomas Savery's steam pump in 17th-century England.


Science During the Song Dynasty
enter image description here
Chinese steam-powered machine

The steam engine invented by James Watts and patented in 1769 was arguable the most important invention of the Industrial Revolution, but it still took 60 years for it to penetrate the economy of Industrial Britain. Its first commercial application was in 1776, but it was not until 1830 that the first railroad appeared and 1839 before the first steam ship appeared. So Watts isn't credited with the first steam engine but the first commercially viable engine which was broadly adapted to rail, shipping and industrial uses which the earlier iterations including china's were not suited to.

China's Sciences / engineering took a different path from those of Europe. That different path put them at a disadvantage in developing or refining steam power in a few key disciplines. china unlike Europe never developed machine tools for metal working and never independently developed technical drawing ability.

Discovering Steam Power in China, 1840s-1860s
The technology that supported the steam engine was unknown in China. The Chinese technological tradition had developed in directions quite different from that of the West. Chinese artisans built sophisticated machines and were highly skilled in handling various materials, especially wood. Their metal castings also reached a high level of precision and quality, but they did not have a strong tradition of creating machine tools to work on metal. Furthermore, although technical trading and instructions were handed down orally and by way of drawings and models, Chinese drawing conventions did not involve clear geometric rules of projection. When production work required designers and workmen to be different people, designers supplemented their drawings (tu) with scale models (yang), because they were well aware of the limitations of drawings for communicating instructions. Unlike their European counterparts, who exploited the power of drawings in visual communication, Chinese artisans put their trust in models.

  • James Watt, not James Watts. Commented Apr 21, 2019 at 0:02

They mention that the Chinese invented steam engines, among other things, in this 1990s/1980s childrens series "once upon a time" and it's spin offs.

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