The Powers Face Off:
                               Steam vs. Water

In 1860, water powered half of America’s industry.1 Moreover, at the start of the Civil War water power was still used more than steam in factories.2 Yet, steam power would threaten water’s energy-generating dominance throughout the Civil War. According to Dr. Louis Hunter, a late economic history professor at American University, even with its roots in waterpower, “industrialization from the 1860s was almost entirely dependent upon the driving force of steam.”3 Steam engines made the creation of "heavy machine tools" plausible, which in turn promoted uniformity and interchangeability in the arms industry.4 Steam engines offered new options to arms companies. Those machines allowed companies to be located almost anywhere, because the machine less reliant on the nature than waterpower. Likewise, steam engines gave enough power to fuel the increasing amount of machine tools that each company housed.








By the 1850s, beam engines with their horizontal cylinders were becoming more popular.21 Steam engines continued to evolve and become stronger. As a result, 1860s steam engines were significantly different and more efficient machines than the initial models.22 That evolution can be seen in the increase of each engine's horsepower. Steam engines average horsepower increased from 19.3 in all sectors of manufacturing in 1839 to 30.4 in 1869, an 11.1 horsepower increase. For the same time period, the primary metal industry's steam engines' horsepower increased by 21.5, and the machinery industry’s increased 12.6 in horsepower overall.21 The prominence of steam engines as well as their changes, including the increase in horsepower, affected how machines and armaments were built during the Civil War. 


a The American Industrial Revolution took place between 1790 and 1860.

1 Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar, Engines of Change: the American Industrial Revolution, 1790 – 1860 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986), 158.
2 Louis C. Hunter, A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1780-1930, vol 2, Steam Power (Charlottesville; The University Press of Virginia, 1985), 117.
3 Hunter, A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 695.
4 L. T. C.  Rolt, A Short History of Machine Tools (Cambridge, Massachusetts: M. I. T. Press, 1965), 39.
5 Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley, 148.
6 Hindle and Lubar, Engines of Change, 158.
7 Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley, 147.
8 Hindle and Lubar, Engines of Change, 18.
9 Hindle and Lubar, Engines of Change, 160.
10 Hindle and Lubar, Engines of Change, 15.
11 Rolt, A Short History of Machine Tools, 48.
12 Rolt, A Short History of Machine Tools, 52.
13 Rolt, A Short History of Machine Tools, 49.
14 Hindle and Lubar, Engines of Change, 17-18.
15  Thomas C. Cochran, Frontiers of Change:  Early Industrialism in America (New York/ Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1981), 68-69.
16 Hunter, A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 135-136.
17 Hunter, A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 136.
18 Hunter, A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 264.
19  Winston O. Smith, The Sharps Rifle: Its History, Development and Operation (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1943), 28.
20 Smith, The Sharps Rifle, 40.
21 Hunter, A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 156-157.
22 Hunter, A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 170.
23 Allen Howard Fenichel, Quantitative Analysis of the Growth and Diffusion of Steam Power In Manufacturing in the United States, 1838-1919 (New York: Arno Press, 1979), 234.

Steam Admission Valve

a valve that controls the amount of steam that goes to and from the engine’s compression cylinder


Drawing by George Henry Corliss from his initial 1849 patent (number 6,162) for his steam engine.

Then, George Henry Corliss patented his steam engine in 1849.  The Corliss steam engine featured a valve system that could control the speed at the beginning, end, or during its process (in case of emergency) by a “drop cutoff action,” which meant that the steam admission valve was almost instantly closed at the cut-off point. By 1863, 481 Corliss engines were built. Two hundred fifty Corliss engines were built in the first ten years of its production, meaning that the 48 percent of those 481 engines were created in the last four years of that count, 1860 - 1863. Of those 481 manufactured by 1863, Corliss estimated that 450 were used daily.18

Corliss engines or those of similar design were used in arms factories. The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company's armory in Hartford had a 250 horsepower Corliss steam engine provided by the Corliss Steam Engine Company of Providence.
19 After Christian Sharps left the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, he started the C. Sharps Company, which had a 75 horsepower steam engine.20 The output of the factory significantly depended on the strength of its power source, not just the type of it. The Hartford armory was capable of manufacturing more carbines than C. Sharps Company’s factory.

History of the Use of Steam Power in Manufacturing

Steam power was not used in armories in the 1830s and 1850s.5 Steam-engine use increased in other branches of industry in the United States due to the 1830s decrease in the prices of coal, making the steam engine more affordable to operate.6 However, as late as 1855, steam engines were still considered expensive for those who converted to steam power from water power.7 Similarly, for those companies that moved into an old mill or factory that formerly ran on water power, such as the Cosmopolitan Arms Company, steam was an added, unnecessary start-up expense. Yet, for those companies, such as Colt, that were building factories during the mid 1800s, it was seen as less of an expense in the long run to install steam engines.7 The use of steam power was very much dependent on its cost and the resources of each company.

Steam engines used coal or wood when heating the water to create steam. That feature allowed steam-powered factories, including those who created armaments, to be located almost anywhere, such as in the center of large shipping hubs (by railroads or steamboat channels). The flexibility in factory location ensured companies more success through cheaper shipping costs. Steam power provided for faster, more efficient transportation of goods through canals, which required relatively calm rivers, and railroads. Conversely, waterpower limited the location choice of its factories, forcing them to be near water sources where the current would be particularly strong, such as falls of rivers; therefore, they could not be located by transportation canals.

Factories such as the F. & W. M. Faber Company, established in 1834, manufactured steam engines as well as other machines. In 1860, that company produced over $60,000 worth of machines, including steam engines. The factory was powered by steam and had 18 lathes and 35 workers at the time.
9 As seen with F. & W. M. Faber Co., steam played an increasingly important role in revenue generation and manufacturing ability, in addition to other machine tools.

​History of the Steam Engines
Although the idea of steam power and a steam engine can be traced back to the Greeks, it was only with the industrial revolutiona that the steam engine came to the forefront in industry.
10 In Britain Thomas Newcomen was the first man to make a successful steam engine, and he used it for mine-pumping coal starting in 1712.11 According to historian L. T. C. Rolt, Newcomen's steam engine "was the outcome of the scientific discovery that the earth's atmosphere had weight," knowledge that he utilized in creating his steam engine.12 Newcomen's engine was slow-moving and liable to inaccuracy (at least by later standards), but it was "tolerant of error" due to its design.13 Whatever its shortcoming, it was a significant step in manufacturing history.

Then, in 1776, Scottish Inventor James Watt created the first commercial steam engine, more elaborate and less susceptible to error than Newcomen's. Watt’s steam engine also contained a separate compartment for the used steam to form into condensation, which helped to control the fluctuation in temperature. Therefore, the engine did not lose as much heat, allowing its owners to save money.14 However, for those waterpower companies located near a swiftly flowing river, waterpower was cheaper than steam during the late 1700s and into first decades of the 1800s.15

Oliver Evans, among others, manufactured and sold high-pressure steam engines beginning in 1803 until his death in 1819. Although those steam engines were initially only used on steamboats, they would later be adopted for factory use.
9 Evans took out Watt’s condenser, which utilized condensation from the exhaust steam, allowing his engine to use less feed water, or water that was put in the boiler or condenser.  High-pressure steam engines allowed for factories to be located anywhere--even more than the condenser engine--because it required less water. After Evans’ invention, condenser engines, like Watt's, were uneconomical unless the factory was located beside a readily accessible and free water source.16 Evans also created boilers that could contain steam at higher pressures than those ordinarily used.17