22 Apr 2020

Smethwick Engine

‘I can think of nothing else than this machine’ James Watt.

It is very difficult to imagine a skyline full of black smoke. Black smoke and soot came from the burning of coal, which fuelled the industry of the 18th and 19th centuries and gave the neighbouring Black Country it’s name. It is perhaps even more difficult to envisage moving goods via canal rather than via motorways or trains.

But the Smethwick Engine epitomises that time and was an engine that helped mark the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Goods and materials flooded to and from cities that were hubs of industry. This industry left cities coated in smog. The Industrial Revolution was a platform for the modern world and to a degree, a time of progress but also a time of appalling working and living conditions.

Smethwick Engine

The Smethwick Engine is the oldest working steam engine in the world. It was designed and built by James Watt and Matthew Boulton, whose impact not just on Birmingham but on wider world is testified to by their images being on the fifty pound note.

The engine started being used in 1779 in Smethwick on the Birmingham to Wolverhampton canal where it stayed until 1897. It then moved to the Ocker Hill canal depot until 1959. It was then gifted to the Museum of Science and Industry. It can be seen running under steam on specific days at Thinktank.

So what was it used for? The Smethwick Engine was used to help conserve water in the canal, by pumping it up a series of canal locks. This was useful in Smethwick as it was on high ground and lots of water was otherwise lost. The water loss meant less traffic was able to pass along the canal and thereby less goods.

With each stroke of the piston 170 gallons of water was lifted. The engine made 12 pumping strokes per minute. That is roughly 170 buckets of water per stroke and 2040 buckets of water per minute. This meant that the canal at the top of the flight of locks could be refilled with each stroke and that 250 boats could pass through the Smethwick locks each week. That is roughly 35 a day!

Smethwick Engine

This engine and others like it meant production suddenly became less reliant on the power of nature, humans or animals alone and it forged a new era for production. It made use of the expansive force of steam and a vacuum and is one of a group of engines known as ‘beam engines’. When working, the giant wooden beam on the Smethwick moves up and down creating a pumping action.

Incredibly, there is still a lot of the Smethwick Engine that is original including the wooden beam, which is testament to its inventors. Watt’s legacy is obvious even in our language. We still use his term ‘horsepower’ and the power unit, Watt, is named after him.

If you want to find out more, there are many videos of the engine working online. You can find out more at Thinktank or pay a visit to Matthew Boulton’s home, Soho House, once we are reopen.