Late last year, Nick at Work had organised for Howard (another volunteer) and me to have a tour around the bits that make the big Manchester Mill engine work in the Science Museum. This is the big red one that I’ve included in the blog before. Sadly, I had to miss the tour because it was scheduled for just after I left for Queensland.
Last week, Nick at Work emailed me to say that the tour had had to be cancelled and was now rescheduled for today. He wondered whether I was still coming into work and, if so, if I’d still like to go on the tour. What a very silly question.
So, bright and early, I was up and out of the house, having woken Mirinda with a cup of tea, and off to the station. Jet lag had to take a backseat to the promise of a steam display but, even so, I was wide awake at 4am. Disgruntled, I went downstairs and made myself a coffee, laying on the long lounge with the radio on. Next thing I knew was my alarm going off at 6:30am. Needless to say, my coffee was stone cold.
My trip into London was delightfully cold under bright blue skies. I also stayed awake all the way in – very rare.
The biggest surprise of the day was finding Kevin at his desk when I arrived at work. He usually has Fridays off and I sit at his desk. There was no explanation and I was sat at another desk that has been recently vacated by Sophie who replaced Lucy. As it turns out, it’s a better desk without Kevin’s ‘stuff’ everywhere.
Then, at 10:30, Nick stood up and announced we were off on our tour.
In the catacombs that run infinitely beneath the Science Museum, we met up with John, the museum’s steam engineer. He’s exactly what you’d expect in a steam engineer. I was surprised that he didn’t have a big rusty wrench in his back pocket to go with the perfect amount of grease and oil on his well worn white jacket.
John took us outside to see the boiler first. We were very surprised at the size. I was expecting some huge, ancient, burbling thing but, instead, it was quite small and very quiet. In fact, the only real noise (not including escaping steam) came from the little electric motor which runs coolant around the boiler coils.
John then told us an interesting story about the little boiler.
Back in 1950 the fourth Royal Navy ship to be called Ark Royal was launched. It was an aircraft carrier. While building her, the boilers came off the production line (eventually there were eight in total) and the first and second were installed in her boiler room. The third one ended up at the Science Museum and is now used to power up the Manchester Mill engine. I don’t know why.
So, we asked questions and were amazed at the answers before John took us to an old lift shaft where the water comes in before going to the boiler and where the excess water goes out of the museum after running around the underground network of pipes. We had to go down a very steep, vertical metal ladder to see the outlet tank before heading back into the underground network of tunnels to follow the pipework.
Following pipes around could be extremely boring but, when you have an excellent tour guide like John, it suddenly becomes alive and vivid. Even more amazing was the small power box he showed us. Inside this box are two motherboards. They control the Boulton and Watt engine. Given the engine was built in the late 18th century, it’s brilliant to think it is now controlled by a computer board. I reckon Matthew Boulton would be well impressed.
But, back to the Manchester Mill engine.
We stepped through a final door and, suddenly, the big red engine was in front of us. Steam was escaping from various valves and a crowd was gathering, excitement growing at the prospect of the engine moving. John told his young apprentice to open the valves and get it going. It eventually rumbled into action and the big wheel turned. John continued with his tour, telling us what was happening as it did. It was beautiful.
The rest of the day was full of the usual research (mostly to do with various propellers) before I left for home, a wife and two very excited puppies.