I am building a work in which steam plays a vital role. I would like to include the idea that much of the power for the people is being provided by a central machine that is isolated in one place but provides power to many places. Obviously, steam would cool down and condense if it was piped long distances, so what creative alternatives are there for distributing steam energy?

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    Well you could use electricity, but i'd guess thats not what you want – Jannis Nov 16 at 13:03
  • Yeah it is based in alternative history in which electricity has yet to be discovered. One option to make both of these work side by side would be to say, this could be at the dawning the discovery of electricity in this world. However preferably a way to do without electric would suit better – Slowfanz Nov 16 at 13:09
  • You could safe the energy in chemical bindings: making H2O to H2 and O(2H2 + O2). Then transport the H2 to your city and make a powerplant there. But idk if you can split molecules without knowlegde of electricity – Jannis Nov 16 at 13:11
  • I could possibly use compressed air, in pipeline? what sort of efficiency would that have? and presumably , the first user in the line would get all the power and a user further down the line would get less, or none. – Slowfanz Nov 16 at 13:22
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    "alternative history in which electricity has yet to be discovered. The problem is that electricity was discovered millennia ago (in the form of static electricity). Inquiring into the nature of static electricity quickly led to the discovery of "dynamic" electricity. Some things are just bound to be discovered, given a certain level of knowledge. And if you have people curious enough to make complicated steam engines, you've got people curious enough to discover "dynamic" electricity. – RonJohn Nov 16 at 13:38

Use the energy created by your steam engine to pump lots of water to a reservoir relatively high up. From this reservoir, pipes lead to all the smaller settlements, which use the high water pressure to turn their sawmills or grind wheat.

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    You dont even need to pump high ... you can just make a cyling pipe and accelerate the water. much more efficient, or you make a bicycle chain that's very long (even more efficient ) – Jannis Nov 16 at 13:42
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    @Jannis, pumping it to a high reservoir acts as an energy store as well, which means that in case of breakdown of the plant the rest of the system keeps working for a considerable period rather than taking everything down with it. – Separatrix Nov 16 at 13:51
  • @Separatrix but it also wasts energy with that act of pumping up. and the water (not provided information) needs to come back, to be sent again to power the mills or else. And the chain is more effective . . . – Jannis Nov 16 at 13:59
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    @Jannis, yes, it's less efficient, but the system as a whole is more reliable. Efficiency isn't your only calculation in any system, the losses caused by the lower efficiency will not exceed the loses caused by a day of power failure on a direct system. – Separatrix Nov 16 at 14:39
  • @Separatrix what should fail ? well ... if sth fails you just delayed the water, what make the same loss as my system. – Jannis Nov 16 at 14:47

In real history ...

In real history, during the brief period of time when they had decent steam engines but electric generators and motors were scarce, they used compressed air as a medium for power transmission. A central power station used humongous pumps to compress air which was sent through pipes to consumers which used to power motors.

Citywide compressed air energy systems have been built since 1870. Cities such as Paris, France; Birmingham, England; Dresden, Rixdorf and Offenbach, Germany and Buenos Aires, Argentina installed such systems. Victor Popp constructed the first systems to power clocks by sending a pulse of air every minute to change their pointer arms. They quickly evolved to deliver power to homes and industry.

As of 1896, the Paris system had 2.2 MW of generation distributed at 550 kPa in 50 km of air pipes for motors in light and heavy industry. Usage was measured by cubic meters. The systems were the main source of house-delivered energy in those days and also powered the machines of dentists, seamstresses, printing facilities and bakeries. (Wikipedia)

Note 1: Compressed air remained in use for power transmission in industrial plants until well into the second half of the 20th century. Pneumatic tools continue in widespread use.

Note 2: Note the formulation of the answer: "when they had decent steam engines but electric generators and motors were scarce". The first practicable electric motors were invented in the 1830s, the first efficient generators in the 1840s; there was never a time when mankind had decent steam engines but electric geneators and motors were completely unknown.

I see that other solutions suggest converting steam power to other sorts of power. That is of course eminently sensible - especially pumping water in a pre-electric age.

However you specifically ask to distribute steam (I believe).

Obviously you will need to keep the steam hot.

  1. Insulate the pipes by wrapping straw around them.

  2. Have heating stations at regular intervals. People are employed to maintain them by keeping a fire burning under the pipe.

  3. If glass technology is sufficiently advanced, make the pipes in a similar way to thermos flasks. This will efficiently keep the steam hot.

  4. If the climate is right, use the sun's energy by focusing it on the pipes with huge mirrors. https://e360.yale.edu/features/a_potential_breakthrough_in_harnessing_the_suns_energy

  • For #2, wouldn't that almost be having a bunch of smaller steam generators? – 0something0 Nov 18 at 6:05
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    No, because the original one needs a large source of water such as a river or a lake. The intermediate fires only need enough water for the attendants to survive. This method allows transport where surface water is unavailable. – chasly from UK Nov 18 at 9:03


I'm sure you don't want this, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this is how 'energy' is distributed in the modern world. Power plants heat steam, which drive a turbine, which spins a generator, which makes electricity, which is then distributed via high voltage power lines.

High pressure air

Instead of driving a generator that makes electric power, you could give a compressor that makes compressed air. This compressed air can then be piped medium distances. Before electricity, in the mid 19th century, compressed air was specifically used to overcome the condensation limitations of steam. For example, a compressed air plant provided air down the length of the Mount Cenis tunnel as it was drilled in the 1860s, a 13 km run.

Turn steam power into some other power

You can use the steam power to force a chemical reaction in one direction. The stored chemical energy can be released later. For example, a steam turbine can drive hydrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can be stored (compressed!) and later burned for energy, or used in a fuel cell. This example mostly uses electricity, but I'll try to think of one that is a mostly thermal reaction.

Use steam power to generate gravitational potential energy

If you have an aqueduct going to distant towns, you can scoop up water with your steam engine, put it in the aqueduct, and then let it flow to the distant towns, providing mechanical energy upon its arrival. For medium distances, you could do the same thing with cars on a track powered by a chain, though that might not be super efficient. A chain could drive cars up an incline on a track. The potential energy in the cars at a higher elevation could be used to drive something as they are released downhill, driving some sort of rotary force that provides local mechanical power. The same chain would then pull the cars back and up the incline.

  • no need to pump up – Jannis Nov 16 at 14:00
  • @Jannis looks like I stole your bike chain idea – kingledion Nov 16 at 14:01
  • I don't mind if you 'steal' (reuse) it. but I dont qiute get the idea of the cars ... In my mind it was enough to make the steam engine power a wheel and the wheel power another wheel far far away, with a bike chain (probably sth more massive, I fear a simple bike chain could break) – Jannis Nov 16 at 14:07

What you are asking is exactly how thermoelectric power plant works worldwide: steam is produced by various means (nuclear power, burning fossil fuels), then it is used to move a group of steam turbines attached to a power generators which produces electric power.

Electric power is then transmitted on electric lines to the end user, using the electricity for their scope.

The electricity I am using right now to type this answer has been produced in some power plant some hundred of kilometers from where I sit right now.

Don't move the power, move the fuel

Using a liquid or gas fuel you can move it via pipe to many smaller isolated steam engines, steam scales down fairly well, and are rather efficient to boot. This is what some cities actually did, it was way more efficient for have each factory to have its own steam engine running the entire building. This works even better than moving power since the fuel can also be used for heat, cooking, and light. Natural gas is probably your best bet. As an additional bonus this allows for portable power generation such as construction equipment, since fuel can be transported in containers.

Its a lot easier to move fuel long distance than to transfer mechanical energy, the loses due to absorption, deformation, and friction are just too high.

  • A steam engine consists of a heat source, a boiler, and the engine itself (usually a cylinder with a piston, sometimes a turbine). The cylinder may be the smallest part. Pipe or transport hot steam from the boiler to a distant engine.
  • Heat loss will be a problem with this scheme. So first turn the steam into pressurized air and pipe that over longer distances.

Build a humongous, super long shaft that stretches from the steam engine to the towns, augment it with gears. And don't forget to provide supports!

A bit odd/different but what if they didn’t know they created electricity? Say they found a way to convert steam into something else by using the steam turbine to spin another turbine wound with some of that cheap ol copper and they could send the steam power over some more cheap ol copper to the other end where the my could erm...heat some water to make more steam to use?

Seems fun to me that a steam powered community will come so close to electricity in every home but fall short by just bunching the wire up at the other end to make a rudimentary heating coil to make more steam. To them it would be amazing but to your audience it would be comical.

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