Model flash steam plant by Bert Martin, Southampton, Hampshire, England, 1935
This model represent amateur approaches to larger-scale engineering matters, and a forgotten (or greatly-reduced) world of highly innovative amateur mechanics.
The flash steam engine differed from more conventional steam plant in not having a boiler, but instead relied on a relatively simple tube, externally heated, which accepted water at one end and, by virtue of the low water volume and relatively large heating area, issued steam at very high temperature at the other. It was widely used for steam cars and lorries, the latter of which is represented in our collection, because its design allowed working pressure to be attained very quickly, which offered considerable flexibility.
Flash steam plant found a ready and eager fan base among the model and experimental engineering clubs and societies which existed (and continue to thrive) in very considerable numbers from the 1920s onwards. Compared to the more staid occupation of constructing model locomotives, flash steam could be used with very high speed model boats which, in linear races or running tethered to a central point so that they pursued a circular course, attained speeds of 20-30mph. Race meets were popular affairs, drawing large crowds, and were usually accompanied by spectacular crashes, soakings of the audience, and technical malfunctions of the plant which, in the words of one writer, ran ‘like a scalded cat’.
The model is an impressive feat of miniature engineering, being developed by a man who worked on Spitfire aircraft during the Second World War, and who gained three silver medals from the Model Engineer for his work. It points to the approaches to engineering undertaken in parallel to that centred on industry, where people with the right skills and mind-set had an innate tendency to turn a problem over and develop technical responses to it simply as a matter of inquisitiveness – effectively, because they could! They also point to a world which we seem to have lost, but which at the time was novel: a world where, for the first time, people had decent incomes, stable jobs, and leisure time and who, once the day’s work was done, could retreat to the shed or home workshop and spend an evening pursuing projects like this.