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26 Oct 2018

World’s oldest working steam engine back in action at Thinktank after restoration project

The Smethwick Engine, the world’s oldest steam engine in working order, built and designed in Birmingham by James Watt, will be powered by steam for the first time in over three years at Thinktank following an extensive restoration project.

Smethwick Engine Weekend will run at Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum on Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th November where the historic engine will be steaming three times each day at 11:30am, 1:00pm and 2:30pm.

The Smethwick Engine was the first in the world to use both the expansive force of steam and a vacuum at the same time. A specialist team worked alongside technicians from Birmingham Museums Trust to restore the engine to working order. The restoration project has been supported by IMI plc and Millennium Point.

The work has been completed ahead of a yearlong commemoration of the bicentenary of James Watt’s death in 2019, led by the Lunar Society. Throughout the year there will be a range of public activities and events to commemorate, celebrate and explore the life of one of the most important historical figures associated with Birmingham and the Midlands.

Watt moved to Birmingham in 1775 to enter into partnership with Birmingham industrialist Matthew Boulton and the Smethwick Engine was designed by the firm of Boulton & Watt. It was installed almost 240 years ago on the Birmingham-Wolverhampton canal in 1779 and saved water by pumping it back up a series of canal locks at Smethwick. 

It lifted the equivalent of 1,500 buckets of water each minute and refilled the canal at the top of the locks, so that 250 boats packed with materials could pass through the locks every week. Boulton & Watt’s engines marked the start of the Industrial Revolution. For the first time in history, production became independent of water, wind, animal and human power as its source of energy. 

Lauren Deere, Museum Manager at Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum, said: “The Smethwick Engine was a pioneering design which lead to the transformation of Birmingham in the 18th century. It is always a popular exhibit at Thinktank and we are thrilled that the engine is able to run on steam again as it was originally designed to do.

“This restoration project has brought James Watt’s revolutionary engineering back to life ahead of the bicentenary commemorations in 2019. We look forward to welcoming visitors to see the engine on 3rd and 4th November and sharing more about this fascinating man and the impact this engine had on the city.”

Rt Hon Jacqui Smith, Chair of the Lunar Society, said: “It’s great news that Birmingham Museums Trust has been able to restore the iconic Smethwick Engine to full working order in time for next year’s Watt Bicentenary. The Lunar Society is looking forward to working with the Museums Trust and a host of other partners to deliver the 2019 Bicentenary programme. As well as enabling people to become familiar with Watt and his achievements, we will be looking to the future and asking how Watt’s ideas link to present day science, technology and innovation.”

Birmingham has one of the most comprehensive steam engine collections in the world, which is cared for by Birmingham Museums Trust. The Smethwick Engine is displayed in the Power Up gallery at Thinktank which showcases the fascinating industrial heritage of the city.
To find out more about Smethwick Engine weekend on Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th November at Thinktank visit www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/thinktank/whats-on/smethwick-engine-weekend. Access will be included in the ticket entry price. A series of steaming events will also be planned for 2019. More details will be revealed via the website.

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