12 November 2012

Newcomen 300 Conference

The 300th anniversary of the first recorded Newcomen steam engine was celebrated in style this weekend at the Black Country Living Museum.

This international conference brought together a wide range of people who have spent many years exploring various aspects of the Newcomen engine. Over 80 delegates included members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Newcomen Society, the Historical Metallurgy Society and a range of enthusiastic supporters of the project.

The photograph above shows the Black Country Museum's replica Newcomen engine in steam at night - a special treat for the conference delegates at the conclusion of the first day. The engine, and aspects of its restoration, also featured last night in the Channel 4 series 'How Britain Worked'.

The first day of the conference (9th November) began with an opening lecture by Jim Andrews - Secretary of the Midlands Branch of the Newcomen Society - who outlined the biography of Thomas Newcomen and provided an overview of how the eponymous engine was developed. The Black Country context was then provided by Trevor Raybould, who, in an entertaining lecture, gave an excellent overview of the geology of the Black Country - with particular focus on the role of the Earl of Dudley in developing the area's industrial pre-eminence.

Trevor's lecture was followed by the presentation of the Engineering Heritage Award to the replica Newcomen engine at the Black Country Living Museum. The prize was presented by John Wood, Chairman of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers Heritage Committee.

The delegates then split into two groups. One went for a tour of the Black Country Living Museum, the rest of us spent an absorbing hour learning all about the steam narrow boat 'President' from some of the 'Friends of the President' who restore and maintain this unique vessel. Richard Thomas, the Friends' archivist, provided an overview of her history down to about 1983 (when she came to the Black Country Living Museum); this was followed by a technical account of her various restorations by chief engineer Dave Stott. Luckily 'President' passed her boiler inspection in the nick of time to appear on the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant.

We were then treated to a fascinating film by independent film-makers Rob and Yuehong Dickinson. This looked at the 'Olean' sugar mill in East Java: a fully steam-powered mill which opened in 1860 and is powered by a variety of ancient engines. It lies at the hub of a network of narrow-gauge railway lines, the cane being brought into the mill by four 1920s steam locomotives. One wonders quite how much longer this set-up will survive.

The day concluded with an opportunity to go and see the Newcomen engine in steam.

There were also demonstrations of ironworking and iron rolling by the Black Country Museum staff and volunteers. This was the first time the rolling mill had been in operation for some time and it was great to see it alive again (particularly for me, after my experiences rolling iron at the Blists Hill mill some years ago). This was followed by a pint in the pub, and an excellent dinner at the new Workers' Institute Cafe.

Day two (10th November) began with a lecture by David Perrett entitled 'The Archaeology of the Newcomen Engine'. David - a chemist and professor of Bioanalytical Science - gave an interesting paper which covered many of the well-known and less well-known sites of Newcomen and other engines, along with entertaining stories of Henry Ford's trips to the UK in the 1920s in which he acquired over 50 engines of various sorts for his museum.

This was followed by an exemplary paper on the history and rediscovery of Boulton and Watt's Soho Manufactory by the leading expert on the subject - George Demidowicz.

Returning to the engine itself, Geoff Wallis provided a full account of its recent restoration, demonstrating the value of building replicas in enabling us to understand the various skills that were needed to keep such engines in operation. This was followed by Steve Grudging's presentation on John Wise - an overlooked but long-lived and prolific Newcomen engine-builder, who was responsible for the Chelsea Water Works engines as well as various mining installations in Warwickshire, the Bristol area and Cornwall.

Finally, the conference concluded with a look forward to future energy provision by Richard Coakley, past President of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Many thanks to all at the Black Country Living Museum for an excellent conference - including very generous and tasty refreshments throughout!

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