Brass, Steel and Fire exhibition opens in London

22 October 2020
Previously at the National Railway Museum in York, Brass, Steel and Fire celebrates model making in the age of the railways in a unique exhibition which explores the skills, endeavour and pride of pioneering makers and their elaborate homemade machines.

Journey through a century of model making and discover the beauty of locomotive engineering in Brass, Steel and Fire, a free exhibition open from today at the Science Museum in London.

As you travel through this award-winning exhibition, you will meet the ordinary people – from lacemakers to locomotive drivers and engineers – who built the modern world from their kitchen tables. Made with curiosity and experimentation in mind, these models hissed, smoked and steamed their way through a century of rapid technological change.

Brass, Steel and Fire features several of the oldest model locomotives in the world, lovingly handmade from scratch in the nineteenth century. Brought together for the first time in this exhibition, these intricate and inventive models provide visitors with a glimpse of the skill, passion and joy found in making the world in miniature.

Among the nineteen models on display is the world’s oldest model locomotive, Salamanca, on loan from Leeds Museums and Galleries, and Topsy, on loan from Ffestiniog Railway in Wales, which helped spread narrow-gauge railways around the world. A model of Fire King, made in the 1840s by apprentice Josiah Evans who used his experience to later build full size locomotives, is one of three rare models on loan from the Rahmi M. Koç Museum in Istanbul, Turkey.

A spectacular artistic display of almost 200 tools used to make model locomotives welcomes visitors into the exhibition. The tools were used for many years by model maker Keith Dodgson, who donated the tools for the display shortly before he died.

Brass, Steel and Fire explores the stories behind many unique locomotive models, revealing who made them and why. Lacemaker William Kirkland brought his professional eye for detail to his model making hobby, creating Apollo in the 1850s from materials he had to hand. While John Dawson, who was District Superintendent and in charge of locomotives on the London and Southampton Railway, took great pride in making the perfect miniature model of a locomotive in his care.

The exhibition includes the world’s oldest working model steam engine, which visitors can see in action in an accompanying video. Making the Etherley winding engine model in 1836 sparked a life-long fascination with engineering in sixteen-year-old Thomas Greener, who became apprenticed to railway pioneer Timothy Hackworth and continued inventing, later investing his fortune in the railways. Visitors can also watch a film of blacksmith Katie Ventriss, model maker James Wells and watchmaker Rebecca Struthers in action, seeing the skills they share with model makers.

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Anthony Coulls, Senior Curator at the National Railway Museum, said: ‘Brass, Steel and Fire celebrates the joy of making, which is as relevant now as it was in the 1800s. It lets us unwind, experiment, gain new skills and craft something unique.

The intricate models in Brass, Steel and Fire may have been built on humble kitchen tables, but they had a global impact. By breathing life into these miniature locomotives, makers could experiment and give shape to new ideas. Without these models, we wouldn’t have the trains we use today.’

In the early days of the railways, engineers made small but mechanically accurate prototypes of new locomotives to breathe life into an experimental idea and test their designs before constructing full-size versions. Despite the full-size locomotives being lost to history, priceless models of historically important engines – such as Fire King and Salamanca – thankfully remain and can be seen in the exhibition.

Made in 1812, Salamanca is the world’s oldest model of a real locomotive. The full-size version operated on the Middleton Railway in Leeds, using a rack and pinion system to stop the wheels slipping when pulling heavy coal wagons. Full-size iron wheels like those on Salamanca can be seen on display alongside an 1814 print showing Salamanca in steam. Also built in 1812 was the Hedley carriage, one of many models in the Science Museum Group Collection which are on display. Created by engineer William Hedley, this experimental model featured an innovative way to give locomotive wheels more grip and led to the creation of Puffing Billy, the first steam locomotive to successfully run on smooth rails. Now the world’s oldest surviving steam locomotive, Puffing Billy can be seen on display in the Making the Modern World Gallery at the Science Museum.

Brass, Steel and Fire also features models created to sell engineering and the railways abroad. Topsy, a locomotive built in 1869 by George Percival Spooner and engine driver William Williams at the Ffestiniog Railway, helped to spread narrow-gauge railways around the world. The narrow track Topsy ran on was perfect for climbing steep, winding hills in India, Russia and South America. Visitors can also see a stunning 1862 locomotive model, with English on one side and Arabic on the other, built to persuade Egyptian railway companies to buy British locomotives.

Brass, Steel and Fire opens at the Science Museum from Thursday 22 October 2020 to Monday 3 May 2021. The exhibition is kindly supported by Hornbeam Park Developments and players of the People’s Postcode Lottery.


For the #bigworshow on 7/8 November, we will be interviewing Anthony Coulls about the new Trans-Siberian railway exhibition.


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