Boulton and Watt beam engine – the museum experience

Posted by jerry on June 23rd, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Steam, Technology

In London recently I visited one of my favourite haunts – the London Science Museum, where they have an excellent collection of steam engines, among other things. On a previous visit I managed to coincide with a live steam day when they had several of the engines operating under steam.

One of the most impressive of these is the Boulton and Watt rotative engine – a beam engine of substantial proportions.

Boulton and Watt engine

On that day I was spellbound by the awesome ‘breathy’ sound of the engine and the impressive sight of the huge flywheel spun up to around 300 revolutions per minute. The sensation of speed and fury was palpable – a really immersive way to come to grips with the impact these engines would have made on a public unused to artificial power on such a scale.

I was disappointed on the most recent visit to find that there was no sign these engines had been recently operated under steam, so they were relegated to static displays that most people hurried past to get to other parts of the museum. Even the reorganisation into themes – which may be fine for a half-hour glance at the highlights – meant there wasn’t a good sense of how these machines evolved from fairly basic low-pressure engines to highly sophisticated efficient and high-power engines that drove the industrial revolution until well into the middle of last century.

Mine hauling engine

While museum practice has changed markedly over the past decade, and mostly for the better, I certainly hope that future museum-goers will have the opportunity to see these machines in action so the sights are enriched by the sounds of the great beam engine – or the almost silence of the huge red mine lifting engine.

In the meantime – Australia’s Powerhouse Museum in Sydney actually has the world’s oldest Boulton and Watt rotative engine – built in 1785 and used for 102 years in the Whitbread Brewery in London.

Here is the engine in operation


Comment by Linn

The Powerhouse is awesome and has a great lace collection as well.

Next time you are in London, think about a visit to the Kew Bridge Steam Museum.

Posted on June 24, 2007 at 11:29 am

Comment by Mark Fox

Dear Mr. Jerry Everard,

I am in the process of writing a coin article about James Watt for The Numismatist and was delighted when I came across your fascinating blog! Do you have a few images of the Boulton and Watt rotative engine at the Science Museum that could be used in the article? I will make certain to credit you for their use.

Thank you very much for your valuable time!

Best regards,

Mark Fox

Posted on April 27, 2009 at 12:38 am

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