Author Archives: Peter Turvey Senior Curator, Science Museum Wroughton

Steaming through the centuries

Mention ‘steam engine’ to most people and they immediately think of railway engines. Yet long before railways, stationary steam engines helped power the Industrial Revolution – the years between 1760 and 1830 when Britain became the world’s first industrial nation. 

Our standard of living, plus the environmental and energy supply issues which threaten us today, grew out of the Industrial Revolution.

'Old Bess' ( Peter Turvey)

One of the oldest surviving engines from that time is now in the Science Museum, ‘Old Bess’ built in 1777 by Boulton & Watt. 

Removed from its original site in Boulton’s Soho Manufactory Birmingham, after it stopped work in 1848, the only way we can now show visitors what ‘Old Bess’ looked like when in use is via a model or a computer animation

However there are a still a few preserved stationary engines on their original sites which can be seen working on special occasions.

The most amazing survival is the 1812 Boulton & Watt engine at Crofton Pumping Station in Wiltshire.

Built well before the oldest working standard gauge steam railway locomotive in the UK, Furness Railway No. 20 of 1863, it is the oldest surviving working stationary steam engine still on its original site.   

Though replaced by electric pumps in 1958, it is kept in working order by a team of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers.

Beam of the 1812 Boulton & Watt Engine at Crofton Pumping Station ( Peter Turvey )

The pumping station is open to the public during the summer months, and the engine run on ‘steaming weekends’ when it can be seen still doing the job for which it was built, raising water into the summit level of the Kennet  and Avon Canal.

Nowhere else can visitors experience such a complete example of Georgian steam power in action.  2012 marks this wonderful old engine’s bicentenary, and with special events this summer Crofton should be well worth a visit.

An interesting post about boring machines (for making tunnels)

Whenever I go to London by train I see the civil engineering works outside Paddington Station for the new Crossrail link. There is a big hole ready to take the giant German-made tunnelling machines which will soon start work boring the Crossrail  tunnels under London.

These amazing pieces of engineering are often scrapped after their job is done. They are far too large to fit in any museum, so we have a model of the similar machines used to bore the Channel Tunnel in the 1990s. 

However, at our Large Object store at Wroughton in Wiltshire we have one of their very much smaller ancestors, the Whitaker Tunnelling machine.

The Whittaker Tunnelling Machine (Credit: Peter Turvey)

Ours was built about 1922 and used for early Channel Tunnel exploratory work.

Like modern machines it has a revolving ‘cutter head’ at the front to chew through soil or soft rock, and is gradually inched forward as the tunnel is excavated.

Whitaker Tunnelling Machine - Cutting Head (Credit: Peter Turvey)

How it came to the Museum is a fascinating story. Abandoned for nearly 70 years outside the short tunnel it excavated near Dover, the machine was rescued in the 1990s, restored, and presented to us.

Yet there is a sombre side side to its history – the Whitaker Tunnelling machine was originally developed to drive tunnels under the German lines during the First World War, so that so that huge caches of explosives could be fired under them to break the stalemate on the Western Front.

The forthcoming anniversary of that destructive conflict reminds us how conflict is often a driver for technological change for good or ill.