A boiler or steam generator is used wherever a source of steam is required. The form and size depends on the application: mobile steam engines such as steam locomotives, portable engines and steam-powered road vehicles typically use a smaller boiler that forms an integral part of the vehicle; stationary steam engines, industrial installations and power stations will usually have a larger separate steam generating facility connected to the point-of-use by piping. A notable exception is the steam-powered fireless locomotive, where separately-generated steam is transferred to a receiver (tank) on the locomotive.
The steam generator or boiler is an integral component of a steam engine when considered as a prime mover. However it needs be treated separately, as to some extent a variety of generator types can be combined with a variety of engine units. A boiler incorporates a firebox or furnace in order to burn the fuel and generate heat. The generated heat is transferred to water to make steam, the process of boiling. This produces saturated steam at a rate which can vary according to the pressure above the boiling water. The higher the furnace temperature, the faster the steam production. The saturated steam thus produced can then either be used immediately to produce power via a turbine and alternator, or else may be further superheated to a higher temperature; this notably reduces suspended water content making a given volume of steam produce more work and creates a greater temperature gradient, which helps reduce the potential to form condensation. Any remaining heat in the combustion gases can then either be evacuated or made to pass through an economiser, the role of which is to warm the feed water before it reaches the boiler.
For the first Newcomen engine of 1712, the boiler was little more than large brewer's kettle installed beneath the power cylinder. Because the engine's power was derived from the vacuum produced by condensation of the steam, the requirement was for large volumes of steam at very low pressure hardly more than 1 psi (6.9 kPa) The whole boiler was set into brickwork which retained some heat. A voluminous coal fire was lit on a grate beneath the slightly dished pan which gave a very small heating surface; there was therefore a great deal of heat wasted up the chimney. In later models, notably by John Smeaton, heating surface was considerably increased by making the gases heat the boiler sides, passing through a flue. Smeaton further lengthened the path of the gases by means of a spiral labyrinth flue beneath the boiler. These under-fired boilers were used in various forms throughout the 18th Century. Some were of round section (haycock). A longer version on a rectangular plan was developed around 1775 by Boulton and Watt (wagon top boiler). This is what is today known as a three-pass boiler, the fire heating the underside, the gases then passing through a central square-section tubular flue and finally around the boiler sides.
An early proponent of the cylindrical form was the British engineer John Blakey, who proposed his design in 1774. Another early proponent was the American engineer, Oliver Evans, who rightly recognised that the cylindrical form was the best from the point of view of mechanical resistance and towards the end of the 18th Century began to incorporate it into his projects. Probably inspired by the writings on Leupold's "high-pressure" engine scheme that appeared in encyclopaedic works from 1725, Evans favoured "strong steam" i.e. non condensing engines in which the steam pressure alone drove the piston and was then exhausted to atmosphere. The advantage of strong steam as he saw it was that more work could be done by smaller volumes of steam; this enabled all the components to be reduced in size and engines could be adapted to transport and small installations. To this end he developed a long cylindrical wrought iron horizontal boiler into which was incorporated a single fire tube, at one end of which was placed the fire grate. The gas flow was then reversed into a passage or flue beneath the boiler barrel, then divided to return through side flues to join again at the chimney (Columbian engine boiler). Evans incorporated his cylindrical boiler into several engines, both stationary and mobile. Due to space and weight considerations the latter were one-pass exhausting directly from fire tube to chimney. Another proponent of "strong steam" at that time was the Cornishman, Richard Trevithick. His boilers worked at 40–50 psi (276–345 kPa) and were at first of hemispherical then cylindrical form. From 1804 onwards Trevithick produced a small two-pass or return flue boiler for semi-portable and locomotive engines. The Cornish boiler developed around 1812 by Richard Trevithick was both stronger and more efficient than the simple boilers which preceded it. It consisted of a cylindrical water tank around 27 feet (8.2 m) long and 7 feet (2.1 m) in diameter, and had a coal fire grate placed at one end of a single cylindrical tube about three feet wide which passed longitudinally inside the tank. The fire was tended from one end and the hot gases from it travelled along the tube and out of the other end, to be circulated back along flues running along the outside then a third time beneath the boiler barrel before being expelled into a chimney. This was later improved upon by another 3-pass boiler, the Lancashire boiler which had a pair of furnaces in separate tubes side-by-side. This was an important improvement since each furnace could be stoked at different times, allowing one to be cleaned while the other was operating.
Railway locomotive boilers were usually of the 1-pass type, although in early days, 2-pass "return flue" boilers were common, especially with locomotives built by Timothy Hackworth.