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In a puff of… steam

Mick Bolognese's picture

The mysterious disappearance of Birdwood’s Watt steam engine

James Watt isn’t necessarily a household name. Watt was the Scottish inventor who, among other things, came up with a way to measure a machine’s power (by comparing it to the power of a draught horse – that’s where ‘horsepower’ comes from). Now the unit of power we use to rate all sorts of things (light bulbs, toasters, cars) is simply named the ‘watt’, in his honour. And that is, in every sense of the word, a household term.

Watt’s biggest achievement was another, though. Steam engines were invented in the seventeenth century, and by the next century they were used in many coal mines. In 1764 Watt, a young engineer, was given one of these to repair. Instead, he altered it enough to create a new and much more efficient type of steam engine. The steam engines he built with his business partner Matthew Boulton were fundamental catalysts for the Industrial Revolution, powering coal mines, mills and factories of all sorts.

Recently I was doing some research on the mill in Birdwood for the recently-opened exhibition Solid Ground, which tells the history of the National Motor Museum’s site. An archaeological survey conducted on the mill in the 1970s claims that the first mill built in Birdwood was powered by a Watt & Boulton steam beam engine built around 1805 and imported in the 1850s by the mill’s owner, WB Randell.

The archaeological survey states that the engine was dismantled and scrapped in 1936 – ‘a major loss to the industrial history of this State’. In fact, Watt engines are kind of the Fabergé eggs of technological history, and only a few dozen are thought to survive today (one of the oldest still working is in the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney). The scrapping of Birdwood's Watt & Boulton steam engine in 1936 may have been a loss to the industrial history of the whole world. But, as with the handful of lost Fabergé eggs, there were bound to be rumours about its survival. As I was researching, a legend reached my ears: someone had once caught a glimpse of what looked suspiciously like a beam steam engine in an old shed in the Adelaide Hills!

Of course, it’s just a vague and pretty unlikely rumour. Several sources I read referred to the scrapping of the mill’s steam engine. Some years ago, a boiler from a steam engine was even uncovered in the river Torrens, near the mill. And one of South Australia’s most knowledgeable milling historians told me he doubted the steam engine in Birdwood was even one of Watt’s in the first place. Still, I’m not convinced that such a beautiful piece of machinery would end up being dismantled for scrap. And I’m waiting for that news headline: ‘Priceless Industrial Revolution relic found’. When it happens, there will be a spot ready for it at the National Motor Museum.


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