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Indicator diagram

   In the technology of the steam engine, the indicator diagram was a device developed by James Watt and his employee John Southern to improve the efficiency of engines.

Additional recommended knowledge

The diagram is simply a chart of the pressure of steam in a cylinder against the steam's volume. In 1796, Southern developed the simple, but critical, technique to generate the diagram by fixing a board so as to move with the piston, thereby tracing the "volume" axis, while a pencil, attached to a pressure gauge, moved at right angles to the piston, tracing "pressure".

The gauge enabled Watt to calculate the work done by the steam while ensuring that its pressure had dropped to zero by the end of the stroke, thereby ensuring that all useful energy, had been extracted. The total work could be calculated from the area between the "volume" axis and the traced line. The latter fact had been realised by Davies Gilbert as early as 1792 and used by Jonathan Hornblower in litigation against Watt over patents on various designs. Daniel Bernoulli had also had the insight about how to calculate work.

Watt used the diagram to make radical improvements to steam-engine performance and long kept it a trade secret. Though it was made public in a letter to the Quarterly Journal of Science in 1822, it remained somewhat obscure, John Farey, Jr. only learning of it on seeing it used, probably by Watt's men, when he visited Russia in 1826.

In 1834, Émile Clapeyron used a diagram of pressure against volume to illustrate and elucidate the Carnot cycle, elevating it to a central position in the study of thermodynamics.


  • Cardwell, D.S.L. (1971). From Watt to Clausius: The Rise of Thermodynamics in the Early Industrial Age. Heinemann: London, pp. 79-81. ISBN 0-435-54150-1. 
  • Pacey, A.J. & Fisher, S.J. (1967) "Daniel Bernoulli and the vis viva of compressed air", British Journal for the History of Science 3, 388-92
  • Handbook for Railway Steam Locomotive Enginemen, British Transport Commission (1957), p81
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Indicator_diagram". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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