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Verdant Works High Mill star object – the life and times of the incredible 1802 Boulton and Watt rotative beam engine.

You may already know that the star object at Verdant works High Mill is the very rare and exquisite 1801 Boulton and Watt beam engine  – on kind loan from Dundee City Council via a partnership with Leisure and Culture Dundee who care for the engine on their behalf.  

In early 2015 restoration experts Lost Art were commissioned to undertake the reconstruction of Dundee’s Douglasfield Bleachworks Boulton and Watt Rotative Beam engine (having previously restored a Newcomen type beam engine at the Elscar heritage site). 

This historic artefact of both national and International significance is one of only five Boulton and Watt beam engines remaining in the UK. It is the only surviving Watt engine that worked in Scotland and the only one that remains close to its original place of working. 

There is a 1797 double-acting rotative steam engine by Boulton & Watt known as  Atkinson’s Engine, formerly Maud’s Engine, in the Energy Hall of the Science Museum in London. It had been in use at the chemical works at 66 Aldersgate Street until c.1884 

Another, built in 1786 to pump water for the Barclay & Perkins Brewery in Southwark, London and made double-acting in 1796 (then capable of grinding barley and pumping water) sits in the Science and Technology hall of National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh. 

The marvellous innovation that changed the world forever was the product of an incredible partnership between two of the principal Lunar men of the Age of Enlightenment. Author Jenny Uglow describes these men as  ‘The Friends who made the Future”. The partnership began in 1775 and resulted in improvements to steam engine design that led to greater efficiency and cheaper running costs and literally changed the world. 

The great inventor Watt

James Watt (1736-1819) 

In 1765, Watt, then an instrument-maker based at Glasgow University, was working on a Newcomen pump where steam pushed a piston through a cylinder. Water was then sprayed into the cylinder, cooling it and causing the steam to condense, creating a vacuum behind the piston that sucked it back into its original position. More steam was pumped in and the piston was pushed forward again. 

It was a very powerful process but also a very inefficient one. Constantly heating and then cooling the huge cylinder required huge amounts of heat and coal. Steam engines like these had only limited usefulness. 

Walking across the Glasgow Green, Watt had the idea of a separate condenser. This could create a vacuum that would help suck in the engine’s piston but still allow its main cylinder to operate at a constant temperature. He made a model of his device, which is now displayed in the Science Museum in London. Four years later, he patented the condenser – and triggered the industrial revolution. 

Watt’s condenser tripled the efficiency of the steam engine and that meant that mill or mine owners got three times more mechanical work for every tonne of coal they had to buy. This meant that Britain’s coal stocks had been effectively trebled making a tremendous difference to the rate at which industry spread through Britain and subsequently the rest of the world. 

Watts Innovations

So, Watt did not invent the steam engine but made several important innovations that improved its efficiency. 

There were four principle changes made to the existing steam engine: 

  • A separate condenser as described above which reduced fuel use by over 60%. 
  • The use of steam pressure and ‘DoubleAction’ – Watt enclosed the top of the cylinder and used steam pressure to push the piston down, as well a vacuum underneath to draw it down. He also made this happen on the piston’s up and down strokes improving the engine’s efficiency by harnessing the power of the formerly idle return strokes. 
  • Introduction of the Sun and Planet Gears. The motion of the beam is imparted to the flywheel by the connecting rod and the sun and planet gearing, turning the vertical motion of the beam into rotary motion at double speed. A flywheel running at twice the speed of the beam could be made lighter. 
  • The governor – controlling the speed. The centrifugal governor controls the speed of the engine, cutting off the steam supply if it speeds up and increasing it if the engine slows down. 

The sun and planet gear was invented by Scottish engineer William Murdoch an employee of Boulton and Watt and was patented James Watt in February 1782.  It was invented to bypass the patent on the crank already held by James Pickard.  

 Watt’s innovations as seen at Verdant works 

By 1775 Watt had moved to Handsworth in Birmingham and his partnership with Boulton began. He was involved in several civil engineering projects during his life, including a survey and estimate in 1773 for a canal between Fort William and Inverness. The Caledonian Canal was later constructed in the early 19th century. In addition to inventing the separate condenser, arguably his most famous device, he also invented a machine for copying documents, in effect, an early photocopier. 

James Watt and the Steam Engine by James Eckford Lauder: ”the Dawn of the Nineteenth Century”. National Galleries Scotland

He died in 1819 and was buried at St Mary’s Church, Handsworth close to the grave of his business partner. After his death became the first engineer to be honoured by a statue in Westminster Abbey and was ranked alongside geniuses such as Shakespeare and Newton. 

The incredible Boulton

Matthew Boulton(1728 -1809) 

On leaving school Boulton worked in his father’s buckle-making factory in Birmingham, which he later inherited. He was particularly interested in the development of steam engines and the minting of coins. Boulton established the Soho Mint, in Handsworth, where he produced high-quality coinage using steam-driven machinery. It was the first time the creation of identical, perfectly-round coins had been possible and it is believed they may have been the world’s first identical mass-produced objects. 

Matthew Boulton first contacted Watt to try and resolve the problem of a lack of water at his Soho Manufactory in Birmingham. A steam engine was needed to raise water from the mill stream and return it to a reservoir. Boulton realised that Watt’s patent for a separate condenser would not only power his factory but also make a profitable business so he bought out Watt’s original partner John Roebuck. 

In 1774 Boulton invited Watt to join him in Birmingham and gave him the backing and encouragement to develop his ideas. A year later Watt’s 1769 patent was extended by Parliament for a further 25years. This prohibited any other company from using or developing Watt’s innovations allowing the partnership a significant monopoly in the market. Between 1775 and 1800 Boulton and Watt made a third of the 1,500 steam engines installed throughout the world. Their enterprise made a huge impact on the world. Arguably Dundee’s mighty flax and jute industries couldn’t have developed without efficient steam power. 

Interestingly, there is a Bank of England £50 banknote featuring Boulton and Watt that carries a much-quoted remark of Boulton’s to one of his many visitors: “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have – POWER”. 

Several places throughout the city of Birmingham memorialise Matthew Boulton. Matthew Boulton College opened in 1957 in his honour, and Boulton Road in Handsworth is a stone’s throw away from Soho House, where he lived for 43 years 

Boulton and Watt’s Smethwick engine, the world’s oldest working steam engine can be seen at Thinktank Museum and the Archives of Soho House, including thousands of Boulton’s letters can be viewed by appointment at the Library of Birmingham

The Rotative Beam Engine at Verdant Works – Then and Now 

Our own rotative beam engine was used to turn machinery at William Sandeman’s Douglasfield Bleachworks, located on the Dighty Burn just outside Dundee. At the beginning of the 19th century Douglasfield had the lion’s share of Dundee’s bleaching trade, an important element of the thriving local linen industry. 

Costing £517, the engine was ordered from Boulton and Watt in Birmingham in February 1801 and installed at the bleachworks at the beginning of March 1802. William Sandeman soon sent word back to the makers that ‘his engine gave perfect satisfaction’. 

Little is known of the engine’s working history after this but it is believed it continued to work for most of the century. In 1898 the engine was purchased and gifted to the Free Library Committee, responsible for Dundee’s museum at the time, “through the munificent generosity of a few citizens”. At 26ft long, 16ft wide and 16ft high it was too large to be displayed in the Albert Institute (now The McManus : Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum) so a separate Technical Museum was established in the barracks of Dudhope Park. Opening in 1900 the engine continued to be displayed there until 1939 when the barracks were requisitioned for war work and the museum closed, never to re-open. 

Press comment in the late 1940s illustrated some negative opinions about the industrial museum and the engine ‘a lot of old stuff that no-one cared about” and “the engine tool up a good deal of space and should be scrapped”. Fortunately, interest in the engine was revived and in the 1960s the engine was dismantled and moved to Edinburgh where the Royal Scottish Museum planned to showcase it in the their new “Hall of Physical Science and Power”. This never happened however, and the engine returned to Dundee in 1975 where, still in pieces, it was placed in store. 

In 2012 Dundee Heritage Trust began working in partnership with Leisure and Culture Dundee, which cares for the engine. The Trust’s High Mill Open Gallery project offered for the first time in decades a realistic opportunity to re-assemble and interpret this internationally important object. An expert professional team of historians, curators, conservators, architects and structural engineers worked together to see this magnificent engine finally restored to working order and put on display in 2015. 

On 25th August 2019, the 200th anniversary of James Watt’s death, the Boulton & Watt Engine at Dundee’s Verdant Works was presented with the 128th Engineering Heritage Award from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). 

28th Engineering Heritage Award from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Recommended reading: 

  1. Uglow, Jenny (2002). The Lunar Men, London : Mackays of Chatham plc 
  1. Griffiths, John (1992) :The Third Man – the life and Times of William Murdoch. London. Andre Deutsch Limited. 
  1. Smiles, Samuel (2007). Lives of Boulton and Watt. Gloucester : Nonsuch Publishing. 
  1. Russell, Ben (2014). James Watt – Making the World Anew. Reaktion Books. 
  1. Hayes, G (2011). Staionary Steam Engines. Buckinghamshire : Shire Library. 

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