Ivor the Engine

Walking round the Museum of Scotland with my mum and dad the other day we heard a noise, “scccchhhhhhhhhhhhh tpppptt, scccchhhhhhhhh tpppptt…”. Looking down from the gallery we were on we realised an engineer had started up the gleaming steam engine on the floor below us. This modern addition to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh takes you round Scotland’s history in chronological order, starting at the entrance with Pictish standing stones, taking you through the early Kingdom of the Scots and on. By the upper floors you reach the Industrial Revolution – there is a large stone building actually inside the museum housing a Newcomen style ‘atmospheric engine’ (the earliest steam engines, before James Watt improved them) with the wooden beam projecting from the stonework. Beside this is this working steam engine; when we passed it we noticed the can of oil and the dirty rag on top and realised someone had been working on it – of course we hoped we’d see the engineering curator come back and start her up.

While walking round the next floor up we heard the distinctive sound of a steam engine ‘breathing’, a dragon of iron and copper brought to life by a fusion of fire and water. Like a lot of little boys I loved steam engines as a kid; I well remember my mum and dad taking me round the steam museum at Carnforth in Lancashire, which I loved – not only did you see restored engines you saw great, rusted hulks awaiting rescue which, if you came back a couple of years later, would have been lovingly and painstakingly rebuilt by volunteers to working condition, freshly painted, brass and copper pipes gleaming.

Even better it was a living museum, not just a static exhibition; the engines would be fired, build up their steam and come to life, so much better than seeing just a static exhibit. I guess there are some things you never grow out of and I still love steam engines; the intricate movements, the harnessing of water and fire to create something new in history after thousands of years of humans relying on their own muscle or beasts of burden. Quaint today, perhaps, but world-changing, cutting edge technology at the time and still, to my mind, carrying themselves with an elegance and style no modern, more efficient engine ever quite captures; in their own peculiar way steam engines seem to be alive in a way no other machine is, breathing, pumping oil and water like blood and with a heart of fire and iron; our most mythical creature, the dragon, born anew from imagination and engineering.