History of the Piston Engine

••• Stonda, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turbocharger.jpg

The development of the piston engine marked the beginning of the industrialization period in Europe, setting the stage for the mass production of steam engines, automobiles and airplanes. Piston engines provided lots of power without weighing down the machine, allowing planes, trains and cars to accelerate and reach speeds that no other mode of transport had ever achieved.


In piston engines, a crankshaft allowed for the rapid rotation of a shaft via a rod mounted on a moving plug. With a propeller mounted at the end of the shaft, the engine could power an airplane. Sheathed inside a cylinder, it could power the engine of a train or automobile.

Early Inventors

Credit for inventing history's first piston engine goes to French physicist Denis Papin, who published his design for a piston steam engine in 1690. The basic design evolved by the early eighteenth century: Thomas Newcomen of England and James Watt of Scotland improved upon Papin's innovation by adding a boiler and steam condenser to the cylinder, further enhancing performance.


After the inventions of James Watt and Thomas Newcomen in the early eighteenth century, a number of variations of the piston engine started to appear in the industrial sphere. The atmospheric engine, steam engine, Stirling engine and internal combustion engine emerged by the nineteenth century, subsequently providing power for trains and automobiles. In the present day, the internal combustion engine powers motor vehicles.

Declining Use

Even though the piston engine was a remarkable advancement and achievement for the nineteenth century, a more efficient system had supplanted it by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Steam power became the preferred energy source for the industrialized nations, and the steam engine almost entirely replaced the piston engine. Up until 1939, piston engines powered all aircraft; gas turbine engines served as a necessary, more efficient replacement.


Even though many automobile manufacturers shifted to rotary engines for their vehicles, rotary engines continued to be less fuel-efficient than the classic piston engine. Piston engines are also less sensitive to detonation and knocking than the diesel or rotary engine, making them a better choice for utility vehicles, military aircraft and other heavy-duty vehicles.

About the Author

Sabah Karimi is a professional Web and print copywriter. She specializes in several niches including travel, fashion, beauty, health, fitness, lifestyle and small business. Karimi has an educational background in business administration and marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

Photo Credits

  • Stonda, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turbocharger.jpg

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