In pursuit of power

This article was written by Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering 

1712 was a red letter year for humankind: for the first time, rather than just relying on wind, water, or muscles, a new energy source became available: the steam engine.

Thomas Newcomen of Dartmouth took the earlier, and rather ineffective, steam pump by Thomas Savery, christened by him the ‘Miner’s Friend’, and expanded it up into a truly practical industrial machine that harnessed the power of the atmosphere. The first of Newcomen’s engines was erected near Dudley Castle in the Midlands, in 1712. Here, then, was the beginning of our mineral energy-intensive age.  

Thomas Barney’s 1719 engraving of the Newcomen engine erected near Dudley Castle ( Science Museum, London )

As the Science Museum expanded in the early twentieth century, the central role of steam meeting our energy needs placed the engine collection centre-stage: the first things visitors still see entering the museum are engines by James Watt, and other engineers.

The thing was, the museum long had a gap in its collections: there was no Newcomen-type engine to display. Curator HW Dickinson was asked to make good the deficiency. By the end of 1914, and mindful that agents for Henry Ford’s museum at Detroit were also snooping around, he had surveyed all the candidate engines.

The one chosen was that from Pentrich Colliery, Derbyshire. It was built by Francis Thompson in 1791, and used the original working cycle pioneered by Newcomen, although the engine was physically altered (and relocated) during its working life.

The Pentrich engine just before it was dismantled and shipped to the Science Museum ( Science Museum, London )

Dickinson oversaw the purchase, dismantling and re-erection of the 105 tons of iron, stone and timber comprising the engine and large portions of its engine house inside the Science Museum . It remains there today, symbolising the substitution of mineral for organic energy which Britain’s industrial revolution depended upon.

 

For an alternative view of the Newcomen engine why not check out the Science Museum’s Climate Changing Stories.

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