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The Power of Fire and Water that developed in Newcastle by Mike Tilley

Steam was the power that drove the industrial revolution, harnessed on Tyneside to make the UK the world leading nation during the 19th Century. 

The progress of steam power during the 1800’s grew out of Tyneside’s engineering invention led by the Stephensons, Charles Parsons, Joseph Swan and Charles Hesterman Mertz.  Without them steam power and the electrical industry would not have been developed so quickly and enabled Newcastle to grow as a world leader of this technology.

Steam power appeared on Tyneside in the 1720s to pump water out of coal mines. These ‘fire engines’ used low pressure steam that was condensed in a cylinder to create a vacuum and it was atmospheric pressure that provided the power to drive the piston. Metallurgy and engineering technology could not cope with the explosive pressure of direct steam power until the early 19th Century.

The first locomotive designed to run with flanged wheels on rails was built at Gateshead by John Steele in 1805 . Designed by Richard Trevithick, this ‘iron horse ‘ was a demonstration that led to locomotive development on Tyneside and the building of engines to run on the already internationally famous ‘Newcastle Roads’.   Railroads demanded further engineering development which George Stephenson demonstrated by building the Stockton and Darlington, and Liverpool and Manchester railways and his son Robert soon became the world’s leading railway engineer. 

The Hornby Rocket of 1976 used butane gas to heat the boiler

The Rocket built in 1829 at Robert Stephenson’s works in Central Newcastle proved that the steam railway could provide fast intercity transport when it ran on the pioneer passenger line between Liverpool and Manchester. Robert soon went on to complete the first metropolitan railway between London and Birmingham 1839 in a fraction of the time it has taken to build HS2. Meanwhile Steam went on to power ocean going ships and factories . Steam became the force to generate electricity first by piston engines and then by smooth efficiency of Parsons turbines. The first turbine driven power station was built on Forth Banks in Newcastle only yards from Stevensons Works. This would be used to light Newcastle and power

industry and transport. 

Meanwhile Mawson and Swan became the world’s largest manufacturer of photographic dry plates and Joseph Swan invented the electric light bulb.

It was the combination of the dry photo process emulsion and the electric lamp that would enable others to invent the movie film. Here our story comes full circle in 1896 when one of the first movies to astonish an audience is of a steam train arriving at a station.

Advertisement for the French toy maker JEP

The demand for coal created the steam engine and steam drove forward the inventions and discoveries that now power the 21st Century.

Little wonder that we still marvel at the primeval force of the iron horse with fire in its belly and snorting steam. and are fascinated by toy trains that echo so much of our culture.

Today we understand the damage that burning fossil fuels have done and continue to do to our world, and rightly work to end the making of destructive gasses by wastefully burning Coal, Oil, Timber and Methane, but steam is still capable of being an essential clean force for good by the simple act of vaporising H2O.

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Text and Exhibition design by Mike Tilley, 

Backscene painting by Rebecca Purnell,

Landscape modelling by Jed Buttress.


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