New £1 coins are helping to run the oldest preserved atmospheric steam engine in the world.
Dartmouth Visitor Centre is home to the Newcomen Memorial Engine where a new coin meter has been installed so visitors can start the engine working themselves.
South Hams MP Dr Sarah Wollaston became the first to put her £1 coin in the slot and set it running.
The engine was designed by Thomas Newcomen, who was born in Dartmouth in 1663.
An ironmonger by trade, Newcomen realised that mine owners in Cornwall faced considerable difficulties with flooding. His invention in 1712, which pumped water using a vacuum created by condensed steam, earned him a place as one of the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution.
Newcomen’s first working engine was installed at a coal mine at Dudley Castle in Staffordshire in 1712.
Comparatively little is known of Newcomen’s later life. But by the time he died in 1729, there were hundreds of his engines working in Britain and across Europe. They were used throughout the 18th century and were still influential into the 20th century.
One engine at Pentich was still operating 127 years after it was first installed.
However, Newcomen didn’t die a wealthy man. He received little credit for his invention, most of the limelight falling onto James Watt who refined Newcomen’s idea.
There are static examples of Newcomen engines in the Science Museum, London, and the Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan, US, amongst other places.
In 1964 the Newcomen Society of London arranged for a Newcomen engine at Hawkesbury Junction, Warwickshire, to be transferred to Dartmouth – the home of its inventor – where it can now be seen working using a hydraulic arrangement instead of the steam boiler, so visitors can observe the motion of the engine and the operation of the valves.
The Dartmouth engine shows most of its earliest features. It has a simple, untrussed, wooden beam with arch heads, chain connections and wooden spring beams all believed to be original. The valve mechanism is more recent, but is activated automatically by a plug-rod, as in the early engines. However, there is one significant later feature in the shape of a ‘pickle-pot’ condenser, fitted directly beneath the cylinder. The Newcomen Memorial Engine is believed to date from 1725, when it was initially installed at the Griff Colliery near Coventry.
Visitors to Dartmouth can enjoy the working significance of this amazing invention thanks partially to Westwood of Torquay who have created for the Newcomen engine house their first brand new electronic timer.
Dr Wollaston said: “ The significance of The Newcomen Memorial Engine to Dartmouth and the industrial revolution is profound and I would encourage everybody to come and see this working example of engineering brilliance that the town should be proud of.”