Age of Revolution: Animating the Earl’s Great Engine

There are few pieces of industrial archaeology as significant as Elsecar Heritage Centre’s Newcomen Beam Engine. Built in 1795 to pump from the mines below, it is the oldest steam engine in the world still in its original location. But how did it work? This blog by Ally Beckett,  from the Barnsley Museums learning team, shares how innovative new digital approaches have been developed to explain the workings of this complex invention.

The Elsecar Newcomen engine attracts hundreds of visitors a year from around the world. Because of the nature of the site, the engine is normally only run during pre-arranged events and tours. It can also be difficult to envisage how the whole thing works when you’re inside, as it is split over three floors. To help make this unique site more accessible, we worked with Year 5 pupils from local school Jump Primary to animate and project the internal workings of the engine onto the external wall of its building.

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Animation projected onto the outside wall of the Newcomen Engine

Working with creative artists Wayne Sables and Steve Pool, the pupils used iPads to create and animate their own versions of the engine, before using projection mapping software to produce the final installation. This project was funded by Waterloo 200 and the Wentworth and Elsecar Great Place project, with support from the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone. Find out more about the Waterloo 200 project by visiting their website.

The Newcomen Engine is powered by atmospheric pressure. Steam was drawn into a cylinder which was then condensed, creating a partial vacuum. Atmospheric pressure then pushed the piston into the cylinder, moving a beam that drew water out of the mine. The Engine at Elsecar could extract up to 600 gallons per minute and ran until 1923 when it was replaced by electric pumps.

32 pupils from Jump Primary visited Elsecar Heritage Centre to tour the site and see the real Newcomen Engine in action. Led by experienced staff, pupils were able to go inside the recently restored Engine and discover what makes it work. We also demonstrated our working model of the Engine which enabled them to see more clearly the processes which power it.

Having familiarised pupils with the site, we then spent four days in school, working over two days each with half of the class at a time. After a recap on how the engine works, pupils worked in pairs using the Tag Tool app on their iPads to practice their animation skills. Once the pupils (very quickly!) mastered the process, they imported a diagram of the engine which they could then draw around and animate. Find out more about Tag Tool and how to use it in this short video.

The app allowed the pupils to build up the different parts of the engine in layers, animating each one in turn in a manner similar to how the actual engine parts would have moved. Once this was complete, the background photo was deleted, leaving only the children’s colourful and animated artwork behind.

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Information about the Newcomen Engine and the diagram pupils used as the base image for their animations

Once this was complete, pupils moved onto Dynamapper, a projection mapping app. They practiced projecting their creations onto the wall of the school hall. A number of objects were set up against the wall including gym apparatus, tables, musical instruments and cardboard boxes, to give pupils distinct surfaces to map onto. By moving items around in the app, pupils could target their projections to a particular surface and create different images around the Hall.

alt="two pupils using dynamapper in school hall"
Pupils experiment with using Dynamapper and projecting their animations onto the wall of the school hall

In between creating their own projections, pupils made news reel video clips of the history of Elsecar and the Newcomen Engine, recording historical events from the past, as well as talking about what they enjoyed most about taking part in the project.

alt="two pupils using ipad to film, news report"
Pupils practice filming their news reports on iPads

Pupils shared their work at a celebration event at Elsecar Heritage Centre, where their creations were projected onto the outside wall of the Newcomen Beam Engine. Over 100 people attended the event including pupils, teachers, friends and family members, funders and Barnsley Museum staff.

All pupils were able to get their Arts Award Discover award as a result of the work they carried out during the project, which was a fantastic achievement.

You can see more about how the project was made in this short film. As you can see, the young people really enjoyed the whole process. In the words of one of the pupils, this project ‘hasn’t been good… it’s been incredible!’

You can have a go at projection mapping yourself following our online lesson plans.

You can also see more revolutionary resources on the Age of Revolution website.