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Portable steam engines and British industrialisation, 1840-1870 (RDF23/EIS/BOTTOMLEY)

   Faculty of Business and Law

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  Dr Sean Bottomley, Prof John Wilson  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The British industrial revolution marks the genesis of modern economic growth, the transition from a universal regime of subsistence or near-subsistence, to one of material abundance. Conventionally, the role of coal (burnt to produce heat energy) in conjunction with steam-power (transforming this heat energy into mechanical energy) was believed to be critical. It released Britain from the energy restrictions inherent to any organically based economy, wherein virtually all energy inputs are derived from what can be grown from the land, be it firewood to provide heat energy or food and fodder for man and beast to provide mechanical energy (Wrigley, 2010); between 1600-1913, the per capita energy ‘budget’ in England increased 80 fold (Warde, 2007).

However, despite steam’s conceptual importance, from an empirical perspective we still know vanishingly little about the economic drivers underpinning its development, the time series for its adoption, and its tangible economic contribution. Absence of evidence has been interpreted as evidence of absence, with cliometric approaches indicating that water and wind-power remained frequently preferred alternatives and that important sectors such as agriculture remained “virtually untouched by steam” until at least 1870 (Crafts, 2005). If the transition to modern economic growth was achieved without the massive burning of fossil fuels, then a reversion to renewable power sources today might incur only a modest economic cost.

This, however, was decidedly not the view of contemporaries (Morton, 1859). The proposed PhD project relates to the development and commercialisation of portable steam engines between c.1840-1870. As the name implies, these were small(er) engines that could be moved around a work site to provide power as and where required. They were reportedly common in agriculture where they were first adopted in the 1840s to drive threshing machines and quickly adopted to a wider range of heavy farm work (Bourn, 1861). One of the PhD’s primary tasks will be to compile a time-series for the adoption of portable steam-power using extant production lists for engineering firms such as Clayton and Shuttleworth. It is much harder to argue for the significance of portable steam engines if they were seldom used. This will also feed into another primary task for the PhD, to assess the economic impact of the portable steam engine, most likely in the context of agricultural productivity. Finally, the project will examine the sources of innovation in portable steam engineering. Given the scale of the firms innovating and manufacturing portable engines, the sector can plausibly be viewed as a precocious example of the transition from individual led invention to firm led research and development; this at a time when Britain’s alleged failure to do so explains why it was supplanted by American industry (Chandler, 1990).

The project builds on on-going research in the Business History group (funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy) examining the adoption of stationary steam-engines in industry. It would also provide a historical component to iNCITE especially research on innovation, entrepreneurship and rural enterprise.

Academic Enquiries

This project is supervised by Sean Bottomley. For informal queries, please contact him at [Email Address Removed]. For all other enquiries relating to eligibility or application process please use the email form below to contact Admissions. 

Funding Information

Home and International students (inc. EU) are welcome to apply. The studentship is available to Home and International (including EU) students and includes a full stipend at UKRI rates (for 2022/23 full-time study this is £17,668 per year) and full tuition fees. Studentships are also available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £10,600 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities).  

Please also see further advice below of additional costs that may apply to international applicants.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if they are already a PhD holder or if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere.

Please note: to be classed as a Home student, candidates must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
  •  have settled status, or
  • have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have indefinite leave to remain or enter.

If a candidate does not meet the criteria above, they would be classed as an International student.  Applicants will need to be in the UK and fully enrolled before stipend payments can commence, and be aware of the following additional costs that may be incurred, as these are not covered by the studentship.

  • Immigration Health Surcharge
  • If you need to apply for a Student Visa to enter the UK, please refer to the information on It is important that you read this information very carefully as it is your responsibility to ensure that you hold the correct funds required for your visa application otherwise your visa may be refused.
  • Check what COVID-19 tests you need to take and the quarantine rules for travel to England
  • Costs associated with English Language requirements which may be required for students not having completed a first degree in English, will not be borne by the university. Please see individual adverts for further details of the English Language requirements for the university you are applying to.

How to Apply

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see   

For applications to be considered for interview, please include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words and the advert reference (e.g. RDF23/…).

Deadline for applications: 27 January 2023

Start date of course: 1 October 2023 tbc


Bourne, John, A treatise on the Steam-Engine, (5th ed., London: Longman, 1861)
Chandler, Alfred D., Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism. (Cambridge MASS: Belknap, 1990)
Crafts, Nicholas, ‘Steam as a General Purpose Technology: A Growth Accounting Perspective’, The Economic Journal 114 (2004), 338-351
Morton, J. C., ‘On the forces used in agriculture’, The Journal of the Society of Arts, 8 (1859), 53-68
Wrigley, Tony, Energy and the English industrial revolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
Warde, Paul, Energy consumption in England and Wales in 1560-2000, (Naples: Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche Istituto di Studi sulle Società del Mediterraneo, 2007))

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