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Machine that uses steam power to perform mechanical work through the agency of heat (hence a prime mover). In a steam engine, hot steam, usually supplied by a boiler, expands under pressure, and part of the heat energy is converted into work. The rest of the heat may be allowed to escape, or, for maximum engine efficiency, the steam may be condensed in a separate apparatus, a condenser, at comparatively low temperature and pressure. For high efficiency, the steam must decrease substantially in temperature as it expands within the engine. The most efficient performance (i.e., the greatest output of work in relation to the heat supplied) is obtained by using a low condenser temperature and a high boiler pressure. See alsoThomas Newcomen, James Watt.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on steam engine, visit Britannica.com.