The village of Elsecar, like many villages in Northern England, once relied almost completely on the mining of iron and coal for its economy. It’s a tradition that Elsecar is proud of, and works hard to preserve. Many shadows of this hard-scrabble past can be seen at the town’s Heritage Centre, including one of the most important remnants of the Industrial Revolution in the area, a fully restored and functioning steam engine that dates back to 1795.
It’s called a “beam engine,” a landmark design by an 18th century ironmonger named Thomas Newcomen, who first dreamed up this harnessing of steam in 1712. Unlike later engines that relied on high-pressure steam, the Newcomen used atmospheric pressure. It was not the most efficient machine, but with coal practically flowing like water in Elsecar, it was still cheap to operate. So cheap, the engine stayed in full service until 1923 (even used as a standby as late as 1930).
The engine was used to pump water from the Elsecar New Colliery (coal mine), a task it completed at a remarkable rate of more than 600 gallons a minute. It moved so much water, over so many years: It’s estimated that the old reliable Newcomen pumped out over ten billion gallons (that’s 40 billion liters) in its 135-year working life, allowing access to coal seams at much greater depths.
Thanks to a restoration grant, the beam engine, mineshaft, and engine house have been restored and preserved, and can now be seen at the Elsecar Heritage Center, about 10 miles north of Sheffield in Northern England. The Elsecar Newcomen beam engine is the only atmospheric engine in the world that still sits where it was originally installed, and it’s the oldest beam engine of any type in its original position.
If not exactly a champion of efficiency, the Elsecar beam engine won the crown for longevity, a characteristic that caught the eye of Henry Ford, building those cars over in America. It’s said he offered a blank check to take the engine off Elsecar’s hands. Needless to say, the answer was “no.”