Inquiry into the Government's management of the Powerhouse Museum and other museums and cultural projects in New South Wales

Submission from Tom Lockley

This submission addresses specifically Terms of Reference 1 (a) (iii) the risks in the move, including damage to collections, cost overruns and the future cost of operations at Parramatta.


This submission presents a case study of the Boulton and Watt steam engine. There are similar issues regarding such exhibits as the Catalina, the Apollo 5 rocket engine, the Beechcraft air ambulance, Locomotive 1243, Locomotive 1 and carriages and the Bleriot 9 aircraft. Details of these on request.

#5 ‘Moving’ risks case study: Boulton and Watt engine

Summary of this submission:

This machine is unique. It has much to teach the modern world (section 1 below). It was painstakingly restored erected at Ultimo as part of the Bicentennial celebrations, with considerable difficulty, and it is very fragile (section 2 below). We fear that the plan is to move it without a proper risk assessment, notably involving an expert metallurgist. Worse yet, we believe that there are plans to install it in a ‘circulation area’ in the proposed new museum, which is not climate controlled, with consequent certain deterioration within a short time (section 3). This must not be allowed to happen. It is not a decoration for a theme park and must be treated as an item of major world significance, which it is.

Section 1: Significance

The Boulton and Watt steam engine, built in 1785, is the second oldest working steam engine in the world, and the oldest working rotative steam engine in the world. When James Watt proposed that he could build this type of machine, purchasers were reluctant to invest in this new technology. He promised that it would do the work of seven horses, or there would be no charge. This led to a discussion of how much work a horse could do, and the unit of power known as the horsepower was accordingly developed (550 foot pounds per second). The SI unit of power is the watt, named for obvious reasons.

As well as this, Watt designed lever mechanisms which enabled the vertical piston stroke to be transformed into an arc motion to enable the crossbeam, with its central fulcrum, to go up and down with no strain on the piston shaft. At the other end of the crossbeam Watt had the problem of transforming the vertical action to a rotary action, but the standard way of doing this – a crankshaft – had been patented by a rival engineer,  so he had to find an alternative, hence the planetary gears.

Yet another pioneering innovation was the separate condenser. On each stroke of the earlier Newcomen engine the steam was cooled by water to enable the ensuing vacuum to bring the piston down, but Watt condensed the steam in a separate vessel, ensuring that the cylinder remained hot. This invention led to the later invention of double and even triple expansion engines.

The machine also pioneered the steam safety valve actuated by centrifugal force which has been used on steam engines ever since, and the principle is still used electronically by such things as vehicle cruise control and speed limiters.

Because of all these facts, this machine has a good case for being regarded as the most important early steam engine exhibit in any museum in the world. .

Another area of significance is the story of its acquisition. The engine remained in service for 102 years. In 1887, Professor Archibald Liversidge of the University of Sydney was visiting London and heard that it was to be scrapped. As one of the founders of Sydney's then Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum (the forerunner of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, the parent body of the Powerhouse Museum), he requested that the engine be donated to that institution. The owners concurred and packed the engine for dispatch on the sailing ship Patriarch.

To make the flywheel easier to lift and less likely to break in transit, its boss was cut in half and some of the rim sections were dismantled’[i].. The machine was not assembled for some years, but it was eventually installed in a brick engine house behind the Museum in the Harris Street building that is now a part of Sydney Technical College. Even later, the flywheel was driven by an electric engine so that the mechanism could be seen.

This acquisition illustrates the interest in history and the enterprising spirit that was apparent in Australia in 1887, soon to be demonstrated again in the construction of the original Powerhouse and tramway, 1897-99. This was a time of huge cultural growth. Our leaders were conscious that Australia had potential for real greatness, and were intent on being a catalyst for creative expression (in the words of a MAAS slogan of 2017).

In the 1980s a Technology Restoration Society was set up to raise funds for the engine's restoration to steaming order, and staff, volunteers and contractors restored the machine to proper steam-driven operation. This involved considerable research and several major problems had to be resolved. Some cogs had to be replaced, for example, and it was hard to produce metal that was not so hard that it wore out the original cogs. The piston had formerly been lubricated with animal and vegetable fats and oils, and had leather seals, and all this had to be reverse-engineered from scraps of original material and basic engineering principles. The work was carried out at the Museum's Castle Hill site and eventually solutions were found that were both appropriate to eighteenth century technology and reliable for everyday use. The engine was installed at the Powerhouse Museum in 1988, and its inauguration was a triumph for all, and a fitting symbol of the Australian bicentennial celebrations[ii].

Volunteers also use the machine as stimulus for other narratives. It was created for a brewery, and at the time light beer was a very common beverage among the people who could afford it because the London water supply was so polluted that it was very dangerous to drink. The volunteers who follow this line go on to discuss the huge advances in water supply and sewerage that occurred in London during the nineteenth century, and also in Australia, mentioning that one of the early names of the Powerhouse Museum (around 1890) was Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum. This leads into discussion of the essential nature and complexity of water and sewerage infrastructure.

Another volunteers’ talk suggests that this machine was a major symbol of the commencement of the first Industrial Revolution and also of the start of anthropogenic influences on climate change. This script explains the exponential growth of emissions that ensued and is a good lead into the museum’s popular ‘Ecologic’ exhibition on level 1.

Yet another significant story is that in 2010 Britain printed a new fifty-pound banknote featuring the Boulton and Watt engine. Having neglected to preserve it 135 years ago, Britain would definitely go to great lengths to get it back. England, despite its current financial problems, realises the importance to national identity, and indeed to the economy, of a vigorous museum sector.

Section 2: Problems of moving this machine

When the machine was being erected, it was noted that the cast iron, particularly that of the flywheel, was developing weaknesses due to a process akin to crystallisation and that cutting the flywheel for transport to Australia had caused other complications.

A volunteer, now deceased, was the senior engineer responsible for the erection of Basic Oxygen Furnaces at Newcastle and Wollongong in the 1970s. He emigrated to Australia at the age of 80 and was a volunteer at the museum for about four years until his death in 2017. He told me of the dangers of moving the machine and of his opinion that the wooden structure would need replacing. Other engineers, both volunteers and professionals in a wide range of specialities, agree.

I raised this matter informally with former directors Ms Hiscock and Ms Merrillees, formally at the so-called ‘consultation’ meetings of 2017[iii]and also brought it to Ms Havilah’s attention on 4 November 2019. She was still unable to tell me that a proper metallurgical inspection and full risk assessment have been performed. In evidence to the first Inquiry, Mr Peter Root, consultant for Longstaff and a very capable logistician, had not performed such an assessment before 17 February 2017 and was unable to say if it had been done. He stated that it was not part of his work[iv]. He refused to answer many significant questions on the grounds that his work was ‘cabinet in confidence’.

The most frightening aspect of all this is the statement in the design brief[v] that there was consideration of ‘placing the Boulton and Watt engine on display within one of the circulation spaces in the Museum’. This is probably because in the winning design there appear to be no climate-controlled galleries with high enough ceilings to hold the machine, which is 8.4 metres high and requires a solid foundation at and below floor level as well as steam reticulation apparatus. In any case, the machine would not be in a climate controlled area, and the consequent high variations in temperature at Parramatta raises grave concerns for the continuing structural integrity of both iron and wooden components. Such a placement also downgrades the importance of this amazing machine, to which any technological museum in the world would be delighted to give pride of place.


[i] This and other information comes from the catalogue entry for the engine, Boulton and Watt rotative steam engine, 1785 2019, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 2 May 2020, with additional material from volunteers’ research.

[ii] This sentiment is echoed by Submission No 166 to the first Legislative Council Inquiry from the Australian Society for History of Engineering and Technology Inc. (ASHET): At the core of this collection is the 1785 Boulton & Watt beam engine, an object so pivotal in the history of industrialisation that it is beyond a dollar value. The painstaking reconstruction of this extraordinary technological treasure in the 1980s was part of a plan to relocate it in pride of place in the then new Powerhouse Museum. A key part of this process- and a ‘world's first’-was the substantial investment in the creation of a permanent gallery of steam powered exhibits, a facility no doubt developed with many generations of visitors in mind.
It is fitting that the Boulton & Watt engine and its associated exhibitions are located in industrial buildings that owe their existence to the steam power that James Watt harnessed for its limitless applications, not least powering tramways. It would be a great and irretrievable loss to Sydney's heritage to destroy this association

[iii] A booklet containing over 40 questions was prepared and submitted to the New MAAS museum site and handed to Mr Elton at the July 30 2017 Pyrmont meeting, but only one question appears to have been addressed and no substantive response has been received to any question asked. Details available on request. (no matter what questions are asked, no matter what objections to the ‘move’ have been raised, the response, if any, has almost always been statements to the effect that the ‘move’ is a wonderful idea).

[iv] 2016-09 Legislative Council Inquiry into Museums and Galleries testimony,  Friday, 17 February 2017, page 34

[v] Powerhouse Precinct Parramatta, International Design Competition, Stage 2 brief, late 2019, page 105.