Inside the Collection

The saga of a rare and wonderful engine

Otto-Langen vertical free piston atmospheric gas engine 1867
Powerhouse Museum Collection, Gift of the University of Sydney, 1954.

Professor Henry Barraclough was on a mission. He was visiting Europe in 1914 to find interesting engines for Sydney University, and there was one that he was particularly keen to acquire: an early Otto and Langen gas engine, the first commercially successful internal combustion engine.

 Detail of Otto and Langen engine
Powerhouse Museum Collection. Detail of Otto and Langen engine.

The professor took a very direct approach. He visited the Deutz Engine Works in Cologne and explained to the directors that he’d wanted one of the company’s early engines for many years. I imagine he praised the engine’s clever design and high quality manufacturing, and it would certainly have helped that he spoke excellent German. Could they please look around and see if there was a spare one languishing in a corner of the factory? His hosts promised to comply.

On returning to Sydney, Barraclough was pleased to learn that an engine had been located and dispatched on a German ship. His pleasure turned to despair just weeks later, when Britain declared war on Germany. Where was his rare, beautifully engineered 1867 Otto engine? Most likely at the bottom of the sea.

Detail of Otto and Langen engine
Powerhouse Museum Collection, Detail of Otto and Langen engine.

Good news arrived in 1916: the freighter carrying the engine had reached Java by the time war was declared, and it was sheltering in port there, waiting for the sea lanes to be made safe for merchant ships. Barraclough went to England that same year to manage the contribution of 5000 Australian munitions workers to the war effort. He stayed there until 1920 and received a knighthood for his efforts.

The engine was installed in the university’s mechanical engineering laboratory in the early 1920s and used in student experiments. Its time there was not uneventful: during one experiment, an explosion caused the flywheel to spin off and break. It was pieced together and used as a pattern for casting a replica. The university donated this amazing engine to the museum in 1954, and it can now be seen at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre.

Other engines collected by Barraclough were also donated to the museum, including an early Daimler petrol engine and a group of aero engines made in different countries during the First World War. My thanks go to Sir Henry for his hard work and passion, which contributed so much to making the Powerhouse Museum’s engine collection one of the best and most interesting in the world.

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