This steam engine is so huge that you can walk under its beams standing upright – whilst it’s puffing away and rising and sinking. Originally it was used to pump water in west London. Now it is the pride of the Kew Bridge Steam Museum, along with eight other powerful steam engines. Six of them are in operation every weekend, pumping away just as they did in the old waterworks. The museum’s most immediately noticeable feature is a slim Victorian water tower It looks over a complex of buildings which bear witness to the decorative redbrick style of the 19th century. The site also contains a narrow gauge railway which picked up coal from barges on the Thames and transported it to the boiler houses in the waterworks, as witness two restored steam locomotives. In the “Water for Life” gallery visitors can follow a time line of water pipes and icon objects from the Roman period to the 19th century. Another major section of the gallery deals with the fascinating history of water management from the mediaeval times to the present day. Here visitors can pick up some expertise on how to monitor, survey and control the London water supply network. They can also try their hand at steering a robot through pipes too small for human workers in order to find and eliminate any obstructions to the water supply.
A steam engine cylinder is no place for a tea party. Or is it? Some years ago British television reporters who visited the old waterworks at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum proved that it is indeed by climbing through the inlet valve of the Grand Junction steam engine to have a party on top of the piston. Its dimensions are indeed impressive - cylinder diameter, 90 inches; stroke, 132 inches; water output per stroke, 472 gallons. This all adds up to more than 29 million litres a day! Not for nothing is “Grand Junction 90” reputed to be the world’s largest working beam engine. This is the correct name for the particular sort of steam engine which was the first to ensure a reasonably efficient level of operations. The name derives from the beam which was moved up and down by a steam-driven piston to drive the pump. The “Grand Junction 90”, built in 1846, comes from Cornwall, a county famous for its beam engines. It is only exceeded in size by the 100 inch engine built by Harvey & Co in 1869. This also stands in the Kew Bridge Steam Museum but is still in the process of restoration. At one time 70% of London’s water was pumped by Harvey engines. The waterworks on the Kew Bridge Road took over responsibility for supplying water to suburbs in west London in 1838. During the following decades it became necessary to increase output in order to meet the continually rising demands for water. By 1900 there were seven steam engines in operation in the works. Diesel motors were added in 1934 and soon afterwards electric pumps were installed. These quickly made the steam engines superfluous and in 1942 they were decommissioned. In 1975 the waterworks, which had closed down in the meantime, reopened as a museum. Some of the engines now installed there come from other pumping stations. Both the narrow gauge locomotives were formerly used in quarries.
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