For the love of steam

We know what happened to the dinosaurs.

We know about The Great Extinction Event: about the layer of volcanic ash which tells the story of the deaths of these great old dragons which once walked our earth, sometimes on two legs, sometimes on four, finally extinguished by a relentless layer of volcanic ash.

The decline of an empire, even from the viewpoint of millions of years in the future, inspires awe: that such dynasties have come and gone, their fitness for purpose proved irrevocably wanting, is almost beyond comprehension.

An old dinosaur sits on a roundabout in Birmingham, England, and the cars drive round it in a 21st century whirligig. The world hurries by its old carcass, monumental though it is, a stern old Ozymandias frowning at these scuttling creatures circling his great bulk.

I call him a dinosaur, but he’s a dinosaur in another sense. For Ozymandias is a great steam engine, a beam engine, to be precise. He towers over the passing traffic as once he towered over the Netherton Ironworks of MW Grazebrook, puffing great iron lungs full of air into the furnaces.

When his useful life was ended he was re-erected on the A38.

Steampunk cannot match this monumental old legend. He has a great broad beam for his shoulders: in his heyday, one end was forced upwards by steam from a boiler, pushing the other end downwards. He could pump water out of a coal mine more efficiently than any water wheel.

His forebears were the talk of the eighteenth century, created by Thomas Newcomen and James Watt.  By the dawn of the 19th century engineers had perfected the power of these great stationary steam engines, and they were all over Britain, great mighty see-sawing iron giants moving and shifting insane loads. They were the kings of industry, the technology of choice.

Just like the dinosaurs, this giant on a Birmingham roundabout had his heyday. For everything there is a season. And just like the dinosaurs, his kind had a beginning.

But it is a great deal further back than you might imagine.

For an impudent stationary steam engine, a cocky little time-waster, appears in sketches and descriptions thousands of years old.

The ancient Greeks invented a rocket style jet engine, powered by steam.

Ozymandias’s ancestor was called an aeolipile. And it was the cheekiest little ancestor you ever did see.

Imagine, if you will, a large bird-bath like bowl-on-legs, heated from underneath by a fire. Out of the water come two pipes bearing steam, all the way up to a spherical cylinder which they fill with steam.

Poking from the cylinder are two pipes through which the steam  escapes. And as it cannons out, it pushes the cylinder around.

“Æolipylæ,” wrotes the first century BC Roman Architect Marcus Vitruvius,” are hollow brazen vessels, which have an opening or mouth of small size, by means of which they can be filled with water. Prior to the water being heated over the fire, but little wind is emitted. As soon, however, as the water begins to boil, a violent wind issues forth.”

One question: why? Steam engines are associated with well-hard, utilitarian industry. But this contraption seemed, like much of the Greek tradition, to revel in the theory of the physical world without – well- actually doing anything.

It’s all nowt, now.

For the seed that grew in Ancient Greece has grown into a great mighty tree, and the fruit of the tree sits on a roundabout somewhere on the Birmingham ring road.

Steam power is still used to generate electricity; but the days of it dominating the skyline with its industrial might are in our past, a homage to a  powerful, towering empire which changed civilisation forever.

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25 thoughts on “For the love of steam

  1. I imagine that the ancient Greeks found a way to utilize the bird bath steam wheel by inserting some hallucinogens and enjoying the fumes as they spewed forth in the room.

  2. But this contraption seemed, like much of the Greek tradition, to revel in the theory of the physical world without – well- actually doing anything.

    Much like the lava lamp . . . designed to just sit there and look pretty. 😀

  3. Ancient Greece? That is amazing. Your steam contraption reminds me very much of old oil drills that we still see in California. They are still functioning, so I suppose that although technology has advanced they are still acceptable. Whenever we are near them I can’t help but watch them and I think as a child I thought they were like watching an animal drink. Now I’ll see dinosaurs! 🙂

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