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A new technology becomes safer

A hundred years under steam – boiler explosions fuel the founding of TÜV SÜD

Explosion of the boiler in a steam car, circa 1820.
Steam cars were not a commercial success at the time. Passengers were likely uncomfortable with the idea of traveling on a dangerous steam boiler.
Illustration: INTERFOTO

The steam boiler explosion onboard the Best Friend of Charleston on June 17, 1831. The steam-powered locomotive was transporting cotton from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina. The accident is considered the first boiler explosion on a steam-powered locomotive in the USA.
Illustration: mauritius images

The Millfield Ironworks in Bilston, England. Twenty-seven workers lost their lives in the steam boiler explosion on April 15, 1862. The boiler had been in operation for nine years.
Photo: mauritius images

Progress occurs in a continuous cycle consisting of four phases: Those who pursue innovation must be bold, have the ability to learn from failure, follow their inner calling to keep getting better and ultimately have the vision to venture into unknown territory.
Photo: Timefab

The steamship, Alfred Thomas, exploded on March 6, 1860, in the US city of Delaware. Several deaths were reported, including the boiler stoker. Some passengers believed that the jolt was an earthquake.
Illustration: mauritius images

The Beaver Mill in Keene, New Hampshire, on May 22, 1893. Five steam boilers exploded at the same time, killing three mill workers and destroying surrounding buildings.
Photo: mauritius images

In the 19th century, steam power drove locomotives, ships and production machinery at factories. But the new energy source from steam boilers was also dangerous. Explosions were not uncommon – until steam boiler inspection associations made the technology safer in the middle of the century. 

On November 10, 1840, the steam boiler in a locomotive exploded in Bromsgrove, England. The engineer and chief mechanic were killed. Two deaths resulted from a train boiler explosion in London’s Bricklayers’ Arms station on December 11, 1844.

Such catastrophes happened frequently in the early 19th century, when the technological age was just picking up steam. These explosions are what made ships, locomotives, and factories a danger to life and limb. In the US city of Boston alone, almost 1000 steam boilers exploded between 1867 and 1877, killing 700 people.

Improper operation, production-related flaws, construction defects and material fatigue caused boilers to fail under the enormous pressure.

For that reason, Prussia decided to enact government controls in 1856 to keep this dangerous situation in check. But the inspectors lacked the necessary experience and knowledge to deal with the boilers. 

In Great Britain, the birthplace of industrialization, people developed an inspection method a way that turned out to be more successful. The “Manchester Steam Users Association for the Prevention of Steam Boiler Explosions and for the Attainment of Economy in the Application of Steam” was founded in 1855. Fourteen years later, the world’s first inspection association and its four successors were monitoring 15,400 steam boilers on the island. Statistically speaking, their safety was ten times higher than the government-inspected boilers in Prussia, and 20 times higher than an untested system.

TÜV engineers tame the new technology on the European continent

The independent inspection associations in Great Britain found a following in Germany. When a boiler explosion at the Zum Grossen Mayerhof brewery in Mannheim killed one person and severely injured several more in 1865, 22 business owners in the Grand Duchy of Baden founded the “Association for Inspecting and Insuring Steam Boilers with Headquarters in Mannheim.” The date is considered the birthday of today’s TÜV SÜD Group – and a milestone in technical safety on the European continent. Government agencies were no longer responsible for inspecting and maintaining the systems and training boiler personnel: Engineers from the association now assumed these duties. The result: success. A mere two years later, the association’s first full-time engineer, Carl Isambert, could not find any severe defects and many of the old, unreliable steam broilers were replaced or decommissioned.

These days, hot steam drives the turbines in industrial facilities. As a successor of the first inspection and revision associations, TÜV SÜD continues to be responsible for ensuring the high level of safety of steam boilers today.