Steam Engines


  • Poster board
  • Scissors
  • Glue or paste
Steam Engines


To develop an understanding of the Industrial Revolution. 


Students in middle school should acquire some knowledge of the Industrial Revolution in social studies, and from science and technology they should acquire a grasp of how steam engines and pumps work.

To appreciate the significance of these historical episodes, students must know or at least be able to follow the science involved, and be able to grasp the main features of the prevailing view at the time.


Have students explore the sights and sounds of the 1830s at the Old Sturbridge Village website. Of particular interest are the gristmill that uses water power to turn the 3,000-pound millstone and the working replica of an "up-and-down" sawmill, powered by an 1830-patented cast-iron "reaction" waterwheel.

After students have explored the website, discuss with the class what life would have been like in the 1830s. Encourage students to compare how students lived in the 1820's to how students live today.  


Begin by having students read Engines of Change from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History website.

Then ask this question:

  • What was the change that took place in American society in the period from about 1790 to the 1860s? (In 1790 most of the things people bought were imported or made in the home or in small shops; by 1860 American factories and technology were highly competitive with their international rivals.)

To help students see that cultural patterns change because of technological innovations, scientific discoveries, and population changes, students will explore historical editions of Scientific American and report on the relationship between technology, innovation, and social changes during the American Industrial Revolution.

First refer students to the article The Effects of the Introduction of Mechanical Improvements. After students have read the selection, ask if they can draw any parallels between societal attitudes in the 19th Century to those of today, particularly regarding technology.

Now divide the class into groups of three or four students. Assign to each group one of the issues from the 19th Century Scientific American that is posted online. There are 10 in all (see below).

From Volume 1

From Volume 2

Assign the following two-part activity to each group.

Part one 
Answer the following questions about the assigned issue:

  • What are the regular columns in the 19th Century Scientific American?
  • What is the main story in the article?
  • Are there any letters to the editors? What are they about?
  • Are there any stories about patents? For what products or inventions?
  • Are steam engines discussed anywhere in the issue? What kinds of steam engines? How are they used?

Part two
Create an advertising poster for your edition of 19th Century Scientific American. You can use pictures from the website. Mention all of the main articles and anything else that you think might have been of particular interest to a 19th Century American audience. 


Once students are familiar with the 18th Century's Industrial Revolution, they can compare it to the 20th Century's information Revolution. Have each student write an essay in which they compare the Industrial Revolution to the "Information Revolution" of the 1990s. 


Students can explore the following pages from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History website for more information about steam engines and the Industrial Revolution.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards