There’s a dark room in the Science Museum that’s filled with brass and steel models of early steam engines and locomotives. As this temporary exhibition shows, early years of steam engine model making served three purposes — for fun, for testing, for selling something else.

Some makers were railway workers taking pride in building a perfect replica of their day job engine. Others were built to test a new engineering idea, but many were built simply to show off workmanship. They were exhibition pieces, often built by companies involved in totally different trades to show how good their metalwork was. There was a peculiar fashion for a while for opticians to use steam engines to show off their glass frame-making skills.

“There is scarcely an optician’s window in town that is not supplied with model steam engines” The Graphic 1871

Although many opticians bought their display steam engines from someone else and passed it off as their own work. How naughty.

The exhibition opens with the 1890 Steven’s Model Dockyard, this was an early mass-produced educational toy for middle-class homes. Less desirable for the home was the Birmingham Dribbler, so-called for its tendency to leave a trail of burning meths behind them from leaky fuel containers.

I recall my childhood Mamod engine having a similar problem with oil and being restricted to garden use only – although that was due to the user than the manufacturer.

There’s the world’s oldest known model of an actual locomotive, the Salamanca from 1812. Almost as old is the Etherley winding engine, built in 1836 by the 16-year old son of a man who owned a full size one. It’s the oldest working model of a steam engine. A model called Rocket from the 1830s doesn’t look anything like its famous namesake and no one knows why that is.

A very odd-looking compressed air locomotive from 1845 that has two huge brass bottles on top for the compressed air. Although rejected for the railways it was later used in coal mines, where a hot steam engine would be an obvious hazard.

There are quite a few experimental engines, and one set of wheels on show, and some of the models were used as sales tools, such as one with English and Arabic lettering on either side for use by salesmen in the Middle East.

Most of the models are in protective glass boxes, but a few parts are left out for people to touch and feel.

There are 19 engines on display in an exhibition that will make an awful lot of people sigh in wonder at the craftsmanship and the sheer beauty of all that polished brass and wood on display.

An easy to miss feature though is right by the entrance, look up before you go inside as there’s a big collection of model making tools hanging from the ceiling. They belong to the father of a Science Museum employee and he tells their story here.

The exhibition, Brass, Steel and Fire is at the Science Museum until 30th August. Entry is free, although you need to book a timed ticket in advance from here.

Exhibition Rating

★★★★★

Science Museum
Exhibition Road, London
SW7 2DD

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