The Boulton and Watt steam engine played a key role in the development of the modern world. Built in England during the Industrial Revolution, it may be the most significant technological artifact ever to reach Australia. It was one of the earliest rotative (wheel-turning) steam engines to be built and is the oldest in existence. The engine is also one of the oldest in the world to still work regularly under steam.
This engine was made by engineer James Watt and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton of Birmingham, England. It was installed in Whitbread’s London brewery in 1785 and was used there for 102 years, powering equipment for grinding and lifting malt, stirring vats, and pumping water and beer. Professor Archibald Liversidge, a trustee of the Museum, was in London when the engine was taken out of service and asked that it be donated to the Museum. It arrived in Sydney aboard the sailing ship ‘Patriarch’ in 1888.
James Watt did not invent the steam engine, but he made several important innovations that improved the efficiency of engines and made them useful in a wide range of industries. The innovations that can be seen in the Whitbread engine are: the separate condenser, where steam is condensed (cooled to form water) without cooling the working cylinder; the parallel motion mechanism, which allowed the piston to push the beam up as well as pulling it down; the sun and planet gear, which translates the up-and-down motion of the beam into rotary motion; and the centrifugal governor, which reduces steam supply if the engine begins to run too fast.
As Boulton and Watt engines were prime movers in the Industrial Revolution, this very significant engine represents not just invention and entrepreneurship, but also wealth creation, mass consumerism, great changes in working life, a massive shift in the use of resources, and consequent damage to the natural environment.