When we think of the history of steam engines, we often think of names like James Watt, Thomas Newcomen, or George Stephenson. These inventors and engineers made significant contributions to the development and application of steam power in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, there is another name that deserves to be remembered: Benjamin Bradley.
Benjamin Bradley was born into slavery in Maryland in 1830. He had a natural talent for mechanics and mathematics and learned to read and write by observing his master’s children. He was hired to work at the Annapolis Naval Academy, where he assisted in various tasks such as setting up scientific experiments, repairing machinery, and making models. It was there that he developed a keen interest in steam engines, and began to work on his own design. He used scrap metal and wood to build a small working model of a steam engine that could power a sloop. He demonstrated his invention to the naval officers and professors, who were amazed by his ingenuity and skill.
Bradley wanted to patent his invention and use the money to buy his freedom, but he faced two major obstacles: he was a slave, and he was black. At that time, slaves were not allowed to own property or file patents, and black people were discriminated against and oppressed by the laws and society. Bradley had no legal rights or protection for his invention. Despite these challenges, Bradley did not give up on his dream. He sold his model to a friend, who helped him raise enough money to buy his freedom. He then moved to Philadelphia, where he continued to work on improving his steam engine. He also became involved in the abolitionist movement and advocated for the rights and education of black people.
Bradley’s steam engine was one of the earliest and most efficient examples of its kind. It had a unique feature: a water wheel that recycled the steam back into the water, reducing the amount of fuel needed and increasing the power output. Bradley’s engine could run faster and longer than other engines at that time. Unfortunately, Bradley’s achievements were largely ignored or forgotten by history. He never received a patent or recognition for his invention, and his name was overshadowed by other inventors who came after him. He died in 1872, leaving behind a legacy of innovation and perseverance.
Benjamin Bradley was the first person to develop a working model of a steam engine, but he was much more than that. He was a self-taught genius, a freedom fighter, and a pioneer of steam power. He deserves to be remembered as one of the great minds of his era.