Wonderful Things: The Mill Engine

“Is it a time machine?” replied a very excited student when I asked him what he thought the Mill Engine was. In a way, I suppose it is a sort of time machine.

The Mill Engine was constructed in 1903 by the Burnley Ironworks Company for Harle Syke Mill inLancashire. So, how does this contraption work? Well, here’s the science bit:

The mill engine is a cross-compound engine. It uses high-pressure steam first in a high-pressure cylinder and then in a low-pressure cylinder, before expanding it into a vacuum in a condenser. Both cylinders drive the flywheel (the massive red wheel), from which ropes turned shafts on the mill’s different floors. These shafts were connected to the individual looms.

The Mill Engine was at the heart of the factory...

Mill workers’ conditions were bad. The close proximity to moving heavy machinery contributed to many accidents, and inhalation of the cotton dust often developed into fatal illnesses.

 Mill engines were used up until the 1930s before mills were converted to electric power after being faced with increasing overseas competition and more efficient spinning methods.

A young girl in a Lancashire cotton mill in the 1880s

A young girl in a Lancashire cotton mill in the 1880’s

 Steam power caused a revolution in electricity generation. Steam turbines formed the heart of a new electricity-generating network that we still rely on today. Whether the steam is generated using coal, gas, oil or nuclear reaction, steam turbines still deliver 75% of our power needs at home and at work!

Every school walks past this impressively huge object with its complex system of pulleys, shafts and belts on their way into the main Museum. Maybe next time you pass the engine, take a moment to let yourself be taken back to a time of steam and spinning in Lancashire cotton mills…

  • Could you convert this engine to run on renewable sources? What would the best renewable resource be?
  •  Should factories have to monitor and address their environmental impact?
  • If you ran a factory, would you be more concerned with keeping the cost of production to a minimum to maximise profits?

See the Mill Engine on the ground floor in Energy Hall, then take a trip to our interactive Energy – fuelling the future gallery on the second floor to discover how we are going to meet our future energy demands.

-Denise Cook

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