The early days of the steam engine in Germany

16. Aug 2017 item Redaktion

How the first sophisticated steam engine in Germany safeguarded the mining of copper shale under extreme conditions in one of the most important mining regions. 

In an earlier article, we looked at the question of what “automation” means. During our journey through time, we have come across important figures like Heron of Alexandria and explored the effects of the stream engine. After all, breaking free from dependence on the physical power of animals and humans was equivalent to a revolution. All the same, it is easy to overlook the fact that the steam engine was originally deployed in a completely different context – the mining industry. It is in that same context that the steam engine was first put to use in Germany. 

The answer to a pressing problem 

On 23 August 1785, the first German steam engine – built to the design developed by James Watt (1736-1819) – went into operation at the König-Friedrich pit near Hettstedt in what is today Saxony-Anhalt. Copper shale was originally to have been mined there in 1782, but the flow of water into the 100-meter-deep shaft was far too strong. Without a new form of technical assistance, it would have been impossible to pump out enough water to allow mining work to go ahead uninterrupted. The conventional method, which relied on a horse-drawn pumping station, was simply unable to cope with the high flow rate. 

It was an unescapable problem, particularly since the area had been mined since the Reformation and all deposits near the surface had already been excavated. There was now only one way to go – down. The commission responsible quickly realised that a state-of-the-art steam engine was required, so they got in touch with up-and-coming engineer Carl Friedrich Bückling (1756-1812). After being presented with a 1:6 scale model and a persuasive cost estimate, the Prussian king finally approved Bückling’s plans. 

The first German steam engine – genesis and legacy 

Some components for the ambitious project were produced in a purpose-built plant, while others were manufactured at various companies spread across the whole of Prussia. Meanwhile, work got under way on extracting copper shale, albeit with temporary support from horse-drawn pumping stations. After some teething problems, Bückling’s steam engine put in a sterling performance and was further improved on a number of occasions. By 1794, it was time for a new model, also engineered by Bückling. Although the new version proved a success and remained in use for twenty years, it is its predecessor that has stayed in the region’s collective memory. The original was not consigned to scrap either, it was moved elsewhere, to Löbejün, where it continued to work until 1848.  

To this day, the region is very proud of Bückling’s steam engine. A working model (a reproduction) of the original machine is on display at the Mansfeld-Museum in the Humboldt-Schloss in Hettstedt. In 1885, the Association of German Engineers (VDI) even set up the “Maschinendenkmal” (Machine Monument) at the slag heap of the König-Friedrich pit. A plaque on the monument contains the following text: “On 23 August 1785, on this site, the König-Friedrich pit, the first steam engine built by German workers using German materials went into long-term commercial use.” The monument was smartened up in 1985 and 2015 on the occasion of its 100 and 130-year anniversaries. Any way you look at it, a trip to Hettstedt is well worthwhile for any enthusiastic engineer.  

Are you interested in fascinating stories and personalities from the history of engineering? Then we have the perfect solution for you – simply subscribe to the item blog by completing the box at the top right!