Historic Steam Engine Exhibits


The steam engine could arguably be The most significant invention ever invented by man. Although we think of the steam engine coming into being on the old steamboats and railroad locomotives, history tells us that experimenting with steam goes back many centuries. Interest in steam didn’t begin when the steam from a tea kettle was first noticed. It’s interest goes back as far as the first century.

beam steam engine
Beam steam engine. Diagram from the public domain.

Did you know that the first steam engine manufactured is still operating as of this writing? This is a steam engine that today is over two centuries old. The steam engine was manufactured in 1812 by the Boulton and Watt company of Birmingham England.

It is considered the world’s oldest continuously operating beam steam engine and is still fed with hand stoked coal. You could refer to this engine as one of the many antique steam engines displayed around the world but in this case this engine is still doing the job it was built to do.

A beam steam engine uses a pivoted overhead beam to apply force from a vertical piston  to a vertical connecting rod. These engines were also used to drain water from mines.

The Boulton and Watt steam engine is both working and on display at the Crofton Pumping Station near the town of Great Bedwyn in county Wiltshire. The engine provides water for the Kennet and Avon Canal.

Visitors can view the beam steam engine at the Crofton Pumping Station. It is open everyday during the summer. For more detailed information on planning your visit see website www.croftonbeamengines.org

donkey steam engine
Donkey Steam Engine

The Donkey Steam Engine

There’s a reason why this steam engine is referred to as a “donkey engine” or a “steam donkey“. The steam donkey engine got it’s name from the work it did on old sailing ships.

The donkey engine operated as a winch. It was considered a relatively small secondary engine and could help load and unload cargo as well as help to lift the sail rigging. Something this small and transportable had many other uses.

The steam donkey engine was used widely in the logging industry. The typical logging steam donkey engine would have a boiler and winch and could be moved by skids built under it. The logging engine would have a cable attached which would be taken out and secured on a log. When the donkey engine operator would open the valve the steam power would drag the cable (and log) toward the engine. The donkey engine would lift, drag, and move logs from the stump to an accumulation point  Donkey engines were also used to load logs on rail cars that transported logs to distant mill sites.The steam power generated from the boiler could move massive logs.

donkey engine
Piston mechanism of the Donkey Engine

The Magic of Steam Power

Unlike an internal combustion engine requiring petroleum, a steam engine uses water and heat to produce power. Two easy things to acquire…water and fire. You can’t produce steam without water which is why water filling tanks would be placed at railroad stations and other sites for locomotives to refill their tanks.

With a steam engine, the high pressure steam produced forces a piston to move. When the piston moves a connecting rod then power is transferred. There is also a double acting steam engine which alternately allows steam to be put on both ends of a piston.

The Dangers of Early Steam Power

Harnessing steam as a power source came into being before a great deal was learned about it’s characteristics. Pressure from a boiler could cause disasters, and it did, many times. Calculating the strength of a boiler needed to withstand a certain amount of pressure was in it’s infancy. You could say it was learned by trial and error. The many steamboat disasters, especially from the 1840’s onward, are good examples.

sultana explosion
Drawing of the 1865 Sultana steamboat explosion near Memphis Tennessee, photo from the public domain

Among all the dangers a steamboat might face…snags, collisions with other vessels, running aground, boiler explosions were the most devastating. Thousands of lives were lost on the Mississippi and other rivers. Two of the most deadly were the Sultana explosion in 1865 just a few miles north of Memphis Tennessee and the Saluda explosion just a few yards from the dock in Lexington Missouri in 1852.

These were among steamboat disasters that prompted the federal government to finally get serious about rules and regulations for steamboats. Boilers in a wooden steamboat were typically below the decks. You can imagine the destruction and carnage caused by boiler explosions beneath wooden decks of often times overcrowded steamboats.

Some of the early steam boiler explosions on steamboats occurred because the boilers were not monitored properly. Sometimes they were left unmonitored for periods of time. Also, the pressure gauges were not used as they should have been and the gauges themselves were not up to the standards we have today. Uniform training of boiler operators and improvements in boiler construction were the main goals of the new federal laws. As years passed more was learned about boiler construction and the monitoring gauges were greatly improved.

Below are links to photo articles on our sites that you’ll find interesting.

The Baldwin Locomotive

The River Steamboats

The Donner Pass Steam Locomotive

Two excellent books about steam engines and steam power include The Most Powerful Idea in the World by author William Rosen and Water Trails West published by The Western Writers of America.

steam bus
A French Steam Autobus from 1875, public domain photo

Exploring the World of Historic Steam Engines

As mentioned above, the world’s  first steam engine is on display in England at the Crofton Pumping Station near the town of Great Bedwyn in county Wiltshire.

The Donkey Steam Engine shown in this article was displayed at the San Francisco National Maritime Historical Park on the west side of the Fisherman’s Wharf area. To get detailed information on current exhibits there see website /www.maritime.org/index.htm

Another great site to explore some of the more famous steam locomotives is the California State Railroad Museum in the Old Town section of Sacramento. Among other things you can view one of the first locomotives used by the Central Pacific Railroad, the western link of the first transcontinental route.

horizontal steam engine
A very small horizontal steam engine on display at the California State Railroad Museum

The New England Wireless and Steam Museum is located in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. This is strictly a volunteer museum and generally handles groups. They are only open a few days a week so if you want to visit this very interesting five building museum you’ll probably want to call in advance.

For more information see the website www.newsm.org  Among the may exhibits are the world’s oldest surviving wireless station and a collection of stationary steam engines.

(Articles and photos copyright Trips Into History. Steam Autobus and Saluda steamboat images from the public domain)