Excavating the Steam Engine – a conference on researching technological change

Fairbottom Bobs c1890

The Fairbottom Bobs steam engine at Park Bridge, Ashton-under-Lyne, GM. Built in the 1770s and excavated in 1999-2000

I’m not a fan of the ‘great men of history’ approach to studying the past. Laying aside the fact is cuts out half the population, its always struck me as a narrow seam to mine from, which is why I feel that archaeology, which inherently focusses on the everyday detritus of human existence, can be so revolutionary and refreshing (see Francis’ Pryor’s thought provoking and sweeping study 2011 book ‘The Making of the British Landscape: how we Transformed the Landscape from Prehistory to Today’). However, individuals do matter (archaeologists sometimes forget that in a pursuit of knowing everything there is to know about particular objects), and individuals can be the embodiment of change.

One of those is arguably the engineer James Watt, and 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of his death. Born in Greenock in 1736 he initially worked as a maker of mathematical instruments, but became interested in steam engines, and its his improvements to the steam for which he is best known. He didn’t invent the steam engine, but he did take Newcomen’s 1712 steam engine design and improved its efficiency from 1764 onwards (the separate condenser and the development of the rotary steam engine being some of his better known improvements). These improvements, and Newcomen’s earlier design, were part of the technological and mechanical improvements of the 18th century, in a quest to harness power beyond that provided by humans (see Emma Griffin’s excellent chapter on technology in her 2010 book ‘A Short History of the British Industrial Revolution’). And anyone who has a unit of measurement named after them, in this case a unit of measurement of electrical and mechanical power – the watt – is worth examining further.


The oldest surviving Newcomen steam engine in situ at Elsecar in Yorkshire

His innovations and improvement were supported by his business partner Matthew Boulton, who owned an engineering works in Birmingham (afterwards famous). Boulton & Watt became the premier engineering firm on the plant and the leading manufacturer of steam engines. Indeed it can be argued that between them, they helped to invent the concept of the professional engineer. By the early 19th century their business had manufactured hundreds of steam engines, for the pumping of water and for running machinery. The distribution of the sale of these engines shows two large concentrations: the London area and the Manchester area, as well as on the coal and metal ore fields of Britain. By 1800 there were thousands of Newcomen and Watt type engines at work across Britain.


Excavating an steam engine house and boiler house in Manchester.

There have been many events across 2019 to celebrate his achievements. In North West England the CBA Industrial Archaeology Panel is running its 39th Industrial Archaeology North West conference on Friday 27th September at Bolton Museum, on the theme of excavating the steam engine, with case studies from Cumbria, Manchester and Yorkshire. In the afternoon there will be a tour of the steam engine exhibits at the Northern Mill Engine Society’s museum nearby. So if you want to begin to understand the impact of one of the most import machines of the industrial revolution, perhaps the iconic machine of industrialisation, then come to this conference and hear about the latest research on surviving machinery, the buildings that house the engines and how we go about digging them up in the early 21st century.

The programme and online booking link is below.


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