Industrial and Engineering Heritage: Debbie Rudder

Briefing note: The Powerhouse Museum’s industrial and engineering heritage

The Powerhouse Museum building is an important industrial heritage site, and it houses several large engineering objects of high heritage significance. The synergy between building and objects ensures a distinctive museum experience that inspires visitors to take an interest in technology. It helps them understand how things work and how our world came to be the way it is. It inspires many young visitors to become engineers, scientists or designers – the future ‘engine drivers’ of our economy. Even in the information age, we need engineers who understand mechanism to design machines for agriculture, mining, transport, manufacturing, medicine and scientific research.

Recent initiatives by the CSIRO and private industry to boost participation in STEM subjects demonstrate the need to increase public interest in science and technology. The Powerhouse Museum is well placed to further develop its relationships with neighbouring educational and media organisations, including the University of Technology, the Sydney Institute of Technology and the ABC, to build on its record of helping fulfil this need.

The soaring spaces within the building are ideal for displaying internationally and nationally significant technological objects including: a rare early steam engine made by Matthew Boulton and James Watt in 1785, which has been in Sydney as an educational exhibit for 127 years, after a working life of 102 years in London; three large stationary steam engines; one locomotive made by Robert Stephenson in England in 1854 and another made in Sydney in 1882; a very impressive 1944 Catalina flying boat; a Saturn V rocket motor; and many smaller engines, aeroplanes and vehicles. They stir the imagination of visitors from around the world and attract repeat visitation from their ultimate owners, the people of NSW.

The Boulton & Watt engine is one of three early rotative engines still extant (the others being held by museums in London and Edinburgh); it is the oldest of the three and the only one in steaming condition. Its place in history is at the genesis of industrialisation in 18th century Britain. Its significance as a world changing innovation has been marked by plaques presented to the Museum by the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and it features on the current UK £50 banknote. It is the focus of an exhibition, educational programs, daily talks by volunteers and afterhours events. It is cared for by experienced conservators and run by highly trained engine drivers.

The engine (which was originally assembled in, and supported by, its engine house) was restored to steaming condition in the 1980s in collaboration with the NSW engineering community, who provided funds and expertise. It was a long, painstaking project that involved dismantling, transporting and erecting the engine (along with its timber and iron supports) twice, and making many careful measurements, decisions and adjustments. To remove the engine to storage or a new museum would likewise be a long and costly project; trying to rush the process would risk compromising original parts and their placement relative to each other. The best outcome would be to leave it in place as the most valuable object in a revitalised Powerhouse Museum, more accessible (to visitors from across NSW and the world) at Ultimo than in western Sydney.

The Steam Revolution exhibition features eleven engines that run on steam, including the unique Maudslay beam engine. While the main aim of this gallery is to provide a vivid introduction to the impacts of steam on life in NSW, it also outlines the history of innovation in steam power and exposes visitors to a range of working mechanisms. Moving the three large engines and other heavy objects, either to museum stores (which have very limited space to receive them) or to a new gallery (where they would probably be on static display), would be a huge task. These objects were installed, at great cost, with many generations of museum visitors in mind. Again, a much better outcome would be to keep the large objects in place and redevelop the exhibition around them.

Ultimo Power House, the Museum’s home, was Sydney’s first public power station. It began powering Sydney’s first electric tramway in 1899, and it was extended several times as electricity demand grew and power generation technology changed. The building’s heritage significance is recognised by plaques conferred by Engineers Australia and the National Trust, and it is included in the Register of the National Estate. Three huge gantry cranes, two made in the USA in 1899 and one in NSW in 1929, and the bases of two large chimneys, dominate major galleries. They testify to our industrial history and serve as important reminders of past working lives. If the building were to be demolished or split into numerous apartments, these heritage features would be lost or hidden. (See addendum below, 2019)

The Transport Gallery features a rare survivor of the C Class trams that were housed from 1899 in the adjacent Ultimo Tram Depot and powered by electricity generated in the Ultimo Power House. It is located in the Boiler Hall, where huge quantities of coal were burned to produce steam to feed the engines and, later, the turbines that turned the generators. The Museum is the ideal place to engage visitors with the story of electricity, which has shaped our cities and our lives over the past 130 years.

The adaptive reuse of the Ultimo Power House as the Powerhouse Museum was a visionary project with extraordinary benefits for the public, an inspiring outcome for one of the city’s and the state’s most significant industrial heritage assets. The continued use of the former Ultimo Power House as central Sydney’s only museum of design and technology, accessible to visitors from across NSW, displaying current objects and stories alongside those from the past, would carry that benefit through to future generations.

The redevelopment of Darling Harbour provides an opportunity for the Powerhouse Museum to attract more overseas visitors and local residents. The success of the Goods Line walkway and Light Rail in bringing visitors to the Museum shows that it is well located and can continue to provide a distinctive and much needed cultural and tourist focus near Darling Square. With annual visitor numbers forecast to rise from 26 million to 40 million when the Darling Harbour revitalisation is complete, Museum visitation will also increase. And through its key role in the Ultimo education and creative precinct, the Museum will continue to inspire local innovators and encourage young people to become innovators.

Debbie Rudder, curator and writer, May 2016

Addendum, September 2019
New information about the significance of Ultimo Power House has recently come to light. In addition to powering the city’s electric trams, by 1903 Ultimo also supplied power to:

  • Pyrmont and Glebe Island Bridge swing spans (an important feature of the working harbour, allowing boats to move in and out of the bays crossed by the bridges)
  • Darling Island grain elevators (integrated with the railway system, supporting agricultural industry by facilitating exports)
  • The electric machine tools, cranes and lights at Eveleigh Railway Workshops (vital to railway maintenance, locomotive manufacture and passing on trade skills)
  • Electric lights for metropolitan railway stations (replacing small power plants in the interest of efficiency and passenger safety)
  • Sydney’s low-level sewage pumping station (draining low-lying parts of the city, it served a large area and 116,000 people).

This wide range of roles vital to the functioning of the city strengthens the case for full heritage listing and appropriate use of the site in order to protect its heritage values.