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March 2001

The Dickson Engine
This steam engine gave reliable service powering machinery in a silk mill in southwestern England for over a century.

Herbert Morton, employed by Henry Ford to acquire engines in England, recalled the Dickson as "a very beautiful little Beam Engine" and added that

"it had been tended by men of the same family for many generations. When it came to stopping the old engine for the last time the old chap who looked after it very respectfully asked if I would do it myself - he didn't care to - and I understood and respected his feelings."

What was it about this unassuming engine that Morton found beautiful? And why did he sympathize with the operator's reluctance to finally shut-off the engine's steam?

None of us would deny that certain machines can seem to have a personality - perhaps it results from their characteristic design or our continued and familiar everyday use of them - but some of us might hesitate to pronounce the gangly form of the Dickson engine "beautiful". A closer look at the engine is however revealing. It has a delicate, skeletal appearance - the slant of the structure's columns suggests taut balanced tensions - and compared to the earlier sprawling engines that define or overwhelm their structures the Dickson engine appears compact and self-contained. The manner of construction is similarly elegant - even the large components such as the flywheel and bedplate can be broken-down into more manageable pieces for ease of shipping, an important factor in the spread of steam technology overseas.

With further examination the engine's apparent plainness falls away revealing the springbeam to be a classical entablature complete with dentils, the whole supported by columns provided with appropriately ringed capitals and bases. Rather than seeming ill-suited, this decoration suggests a designer's lightness of touch - in fact the whole design seems restrained and refined, the decoration somehow proper, a far cry from some of the absurdities later slathered onto machinery in the name of salesmanship or respectability. In short, the engine has its own personality; admittedly somewhat quaint to our early 21st century eyes, but apparent nonetheless.

In 1929 Morton alluded to another side of the engine's personality when he mentioned that it ran "as sweetly as a sewing machine." It is hardly surprising that the elderly operator was reluctant to shut it off - tucked away inside Pearson's Silk Mill this apparently tireless engine was invested with over a century's worth of care and labor, and was still offering reliable service! The skill of these men was interwoven with the machine, and odd examples of their resourcefulness are still evident - they added a shop bell to warn of low condenser water level and, surprisingly, applied a thick coating of manure on the cylinder to provide improvised insulation.

Sad as the engine's removal might have seemed, it assured its survival - the sentimentality felt toward the engine might not have prevented its destruction had it finally suffered a major breakdown. Long after the demise of its designer, owners, and several generations of faithful operators, the Dickson engine offers us insight into their sensibilities and loyalties.

Builder: Jonathan Dickson, Holland Street, Blackfriars Road, London.
Used by: James Pearsall & Co., Taunton, Somerset, England.
Date: 1811
Cylinder: Bore 17", Stroke 36"
Horsepower: 12
Speed: 36rpm

-- Marc Greuther, Curator of Industry


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