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The restored engine in Henry Ford Museum, complete with appropriate boiler. THF.77648

August 2012

Curators Explore Museum Icons: Eighth in a Series

Newcomen Engine

As curators, we devote much of our time and energy to studying objects—who made them and why, when and where they were made, and how they represent certain ideas, events, and people. When we decided to choose and write about 12 iconic objects from our collection for this year’s Pic of the Month feature, we had to consider what makes an object truly iconic. In the end, we came up with three criteria that we felt needed to be present in every one of our choices: national significance, uniqueness to our institution, and resonance to museum visitors.

Using these three criteria, we explore what is iconic about the Newcomen Engine.



MORE:  Newcomen Engine


The broad iconic power of steam engines is maintained by the continued appeal of steam locomotives—an appeal kept fresh no doubt by Thomas the Tank Engine or the Hogwarts Express of the Harry Potter series. The visual impact of the earliest stationary steam engines, while less defined in the popular imagination, is undeniable when encountered in person: early beam engines exert a powerful presence, whether through their immense scale, exposed mechanical elements, or general complexity. And there is often a note of recognition—they are often identified by visitors as distant relatives of the familiar bobbing pumps found in oilfields.

When Henry Ford first laid eyes on this steam engine in May 1928 he might have been excused for not even recognizing it as an engine. It was a ruin, out of use for a century—a foliage-covered stone plinth accompanied by a tilted cylinder and the heavily perforated remains of a boiler, all of it secluded in scrappy woodland. The engine was not exactly forgotten: it was identified on ordinance survey maps by its traditional local name “Fairbottom Bobs” and its reputation as the oldest surviving steam engine had drawn a good number of curiosity seekers over the years. But by the time Ford visited it was no longer the picturesque encounter suggested by earlier photographs—it took a powerful mind’s eye to see it for what it had been and what it could be.

Ford was taken to the site by Herbert Morton, an employee of the Ford Motor Company in England who had been requested by Ford himself to collect materials for what was to become The Edison Institute. In his memoir, Strange Commissions for Henry Ford, Morton tells of Ford’s encounter with the engine that day:

“... he was very anxious to look over the rim of the vertical cylinder which stood about eight feet high. It was agreed, therefore, that I stooped down, he stood on my shoulders, and then I would straighten up until he could comfortably look over the top. Now, Mr. Ford was very slightly built and his weight was not likely to trouble me, but when I was only half straightened out he decided to spring up and presumably catch the top of the cylinder. The result was that he kicked me over, missed his grip, and fell down beside me. Neither of us were hurt, and we sat on the ground and laughed at each other and made a second attempt which was successful, but I have often thought with amusement that rarely does an employee of any sort of standing survive the experience of toppling his millionaire boss over, and then laughing at him.”

Morton goes on to detail the trials and tribulations of acquiring, dismantling, crating and transporting the engine—a tale that involves an archeological dig, building a bridge, and laying a short railroad. With the collecting complete (and also varied: he was also responsible for collecting the Cotswold Cottage and Sir John Bennett jewelry store and clock) Morton himself was transplanted to Dearborn to oversee the restoration and rebuilding of this and many other engines.

Fairbottom Bobs is the earliest surviving example of the mechanism that is recognized as the primary impetus for the industrial revolution. A hundred years after it fell into disuse, the almost lost engine was visited and acquired by the individual responsible for accelerating that revolution to new heights in a distant land. Looking at the engine now—among other equally neat and orderly examples of early steam engines displayed in Henry Ford Museum—it is difficult to imagine how far it had returned to nature when Ford first saw it.

-- Marc Greuther, Chief Curator


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