Category Archives: Transport

Revisiting the 1988 ultralight flight from England to Australia

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The CFM Shadow ultralight aircraft, 'Dalgety Flyer' flying from England to Australia in 1988. Photo courtesy of Brian Milton.

The CFM Shadow ultralight aircraft, ‘Dalgety Flyer’ flying from England to Australia in 1988. Photo courtesy of Brian Milton.

Imagine flying from England to Australia in a tiny ultralight aircraft with a cockpit not as big as a coffin and a flying speed of 90 kph. Well Brian Milton did just that as part of Australia’s bicentenary celebrations. After the record-breaking flight Milton’s ultralight was given to the Museum. Now 23 years later its English pilot has contacted me with a gripping account and photos of his very dangerous ditching in the Persian Gulf during the flight:

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The halcyon days of the Sunbeam motorcycle

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B2577 Motorcycle and parts, 'Sunbeam' touring motorcycle, painted metal/plastic, John Marston Ltd, Wolverhampton, England, 1929

Sales catalogue for Sunbeam motorcycles, England, 1929

This charming drawing is from the cover of a sales catalogue for the 1929 range of Sunbeam motorcycles. The drawing shows a man astride his Sunbeam in the English countryside, with an empty country road stretched out behind him. These were the days of little traffic, few road rules and certainly no helmets. Driving and motorcycling could be pure adventure!
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The future of Sydney’s transport – a view from the 1940s

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Ilustraion of a future transport mode by Charles Frederick Beauvais

97/195/1-1/18 Pencil drawing, ‘Aerobus’, paper/pencil, Charles Frederick Beauvais, Sydney, 1945. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Why not a helicopter from Wynard to Town Hall? Charles Frederick Beauvais, an illustrator and industrial designer came up a with a variety of futurists transport solutions for Sydney in the 1940s. In this drawing of a futuristic Sydney he shows an helicopter bus service from Wynard Station to Sydney suburbs. The aerobus in the centre of the drawing has a sign ‘Mosman ‘on the front. This image appeared in Pix magazine, 15 December 1945, as part of an article titled, ‘Atomic Age, artist foresees New Transport Methods’.

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Dick Smith’s Variety Club Bash Car

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The 1964 EH Holden driven by Dick Smith on the first Variety Club of NSW Bourke to Burketown Bash in 1985. Gift of Variety, the Children's Charity, 2004. Collection of the Powerhouse Museum, 2004/50/1.

The 1964 EH Holden driven by Dick Smith on the first Variety Club of NSW Bourke to Burketown Bash in 1985. Gift of Variety, the Children’s Charity, 2004. Collection of the Powerhouse Museum, 2004/50/1.

Last Sunday the 2012 Variety Club of NSW Bash participants left the inner-Sydney suburb of Balmain for their annual trip. The unusual Australian term, ‘Bashing’ probably short for bush-bashing was used in 1985 by businessman, adventurer and philanthropist, Dick Smith, when he invited a few mates on a drive to the outback. The drive was eventually called the Bourke to Burketown Bash and went from Sydney to Bourke, in far western NSW, and on to Burketown, in Northern QLD. The idea was to relive the fun and adventure of the Redex car trials of the 1950s, popularised by Gelignite Jack Murray, and to raise money for the Variety Club of NSW, a charity which provides goods and service for children with special needs.

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Steamfest 2012 Mystery Object Revealed

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Collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. 86/741. Gift of the State Rail Authority Archives, 1986.

Would you have guessed the mystery rail object on display in the Museum’s marquee at Steamfest this year? Visitors to this event held in Maitland, NSW, over the weekend of 28/29th April were encouraged to have a go.

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The saga of a rare and wonderful engine

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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.

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Celebrating the Australian Aviatrix Lores Bonney

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Lores Bonney and her aircraft, My Little Ship, at Archerfield Aerodrome in 1932 before her round-Australia flight. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

In celebration of International Women’s Day for 2012 I’d like to highlight the amazing short but inspiring aviation career of Maude (Lores) Bonney (1897-1994), one of Australia’s pioneers. Lores’ passion for flying began after a flight in 1928 with aviation legend, Bert Hinkler, her husband’s cousin. In 1930 she began flying lessons in secret while her husband, Harry Bonney, played golf. When Lores confessed her aviation pursuits, he helped her buy a DH60 Gipsy Moth aircraft which she called affectionately “My Little Ship”. Being a leather manufacturer he had two full-length suede flying suits made for her.

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How many stories can one object tell?

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Powerhouse Collection. Gift of Mr C A Saxby, 1970.

When I decided to feature our rare Whittle aircraft engine in a recent blog post, I entered the term ‘Whittle’ in our database. Data on the engine appeared, along with a photo. Another object also popped up, with little data and no image. Intrigued, I had to check out this ‘early experimental Whittle turbine blade with fir tree base’.

I’d seen turbine blades before, but none as small as this, just three inches (75 mm) long and one inch (25 mm) wide. I didn’t have a clue about the fir tree base, but I did know it couldn’t be made of timber! And I wanted to know more about the donor, Mr C A Saxby, and whether the Whittle attribution was true; if it was, the object could connect us directly with an important and contentious research program, Frank Whittle’s development of the jet engine during World War II.


Powerhouse Collection. Gift of Mr C A Saxby, 1970.

Whittle’s autobiography (Jet: the story of a pioneer) explained that the fir tree base was developed by his team to overcome the problem of wobbly blades. A turbine has a large number of blades attached to a fast-spinning rotor, and vibration at the attachment points reduces both efficiency and lifespan. Whittle’s earliest experiments used the established ‘bulb root’ design, a cylindrical base that fits in a matching slot; in cross-section, this resembles a plant bulb in a round hole. The fir tree base, which has a series of steps that lock the blade into the rotor more effectively, is the standard design today.

But who was Mr Saxby, and how did he come to have the blade? Exam results in Trove gave me his Christian names, Colin Ambrose. A 1935 article turned up a grainy photo of him; the caption placed Saxby as one of a select group to graduate from Sydney University that year with honours in electrical and mechanical engineering.

So Saxby was a bright young engineering graduate at the time Whittle began his research. Did he travel to England and work with Whittle? One of our archivists searched for correspondence related to the object – and scotched that theory. The real story was that Saxby was the Acting Advisory and Inspecting Engineer to the NSW Government and was sent to England to tour various engineering works soon after the war ended. When he was at the Vickers works, an employee offered him the turbine blade. As Vickers made jet engines during the war, with advice from Whittle, it is highly likely that the story of the blade is true.

Curators must be sceptical about provenance because apocryphal stories can develop around objects, often linking them to famous people or events. However, provenance is not the only story. One object can tell many stories, and in this case they include: a problem to be solved; engineers striving to find a solution; the technology this contributed to; use of that technology in warfare and later in civilian aviation; technology transfer from Whittle to Vickers; and the story of Colin Saxby, his contribution to engineering in NSW, and his decision to donate this interesting souvenir to the Museum, to inspire future generations.

The Parramatta flying dentist: a model story

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B2562, aircraft model of Bristol Boxkite flown by W E Hart and J Hammond, made by E Mead and R Coombes, 1978, gift of The Air Force Association, Parramatta Branch in memory of Mr E Mead Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Today celebrates 100 years since an adventurist dentist and self taught aviator landed in Parramatta Park in a Bristol Boxkite.
The aviator William Ewart “Billy” Hart, made one of the earliest and longest flights in New South Wales, when he flew from Penrith and landed in Parramatta Park.

The model aircraft featured above was made by Mr Edgar Meade and Mr Ray Coombes to celebrate the flights of Joseph Hammond and William Ewart ‘Billy’ Hart. Its one tenth the size of a Bristol boxkite plane and was used in a display for Foundation Week in Parramatta in November 1976, prior to being acquired by the Museum in 1978. lt adds to the Museum’s collection of Australian aviation material and models.


Billy Hart landing in Parramatta Park, 1911. Image Courtesy Mr Robert Shayler, donor. Collection: Parramatta Park Trust

Parramatta Park curator Verena Mauldon says research has shown that

Billy Hart The young dentist, from a wealthy Parramatta family, had a keen interest in mechanics and purchased his own Boxkite for ?1 300. He had some lessons, but crashed the biplane early on and had to rebuild his aircraft from the debris in his father’s Parramatta workshop.

Billy became a local sensation as he tinkered with the machine for months on the ground and then taught himself to fly.

This flight was acclaimed as a remarkable performance, both across the international aviation world and by the startled locals who watched him land on the Parramatta Park cricket fields . In this first cross country flight in New South Wales, Hart astonished the community by travelling a distance of 18 miles (29km) in under 20 minutes, and his aircraft reached an altitude of 3000 feet.


Image from Jubilee History of Parramatta, 1861-1911. p196.

In 1912 Hart crashed a monoplane he had built at Richmond, and was hospitalised for two months. During the First World War he served as a flying instructor in No1 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps in Egypt and Britain, but was sent home as medically unfit. Hart’s flying career was brief but illustrious, and he was remarkable in that he survived to resume his career as a dentist in 1918. He remained interested in aviation until his death in 1943.”

The model will be on display at the Parramatta Heritage Centre from mid November 2011 until January 2012.

Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 4 November 1911, p.6; 12 January 1912, p.6; 10 February 1912, p11 and 3 July 1912, p2

Building a better rechargeable battery

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This blog was written by intern Brett Szmajda, who is researching the vital topic of energy storage.

I’m sure that many of you have heard of the Toyota Prius, the Tesla Roadster or the Chevy Volt. Hybrid and fully electric cars are making a big splash at the moment, promising quieter travel with fewer tailpipe emissions. In time, and with improvements in battery technology, it’s conceivable that electric cars might replace gasoline-powered cars.

Would you be surprised if I told you that the battle between electric and gasoline-powered vehicles is over 100 years old?


Powerhouse Museum Collection.

In the early 20th century, gasoline-powered cars and electric cars coexisted. There were even steam cars. Gasoline cars had greater range and could be ‘recharged’ instantly with a jerry-can of petrol, picked up from the general store. But they were loud, smelly, and difficult – even dangerous – to start: the only way to start them was by manually winding a heavy crank shaft, and if the car backfired the crank shaft could break your arm! By comparison, electric cars offered quiet operation and easier start up, with roughly the same limitations that they have today: once you were out of power, you faced a long wait while the car batteries recharged. The pros and cons on each side were roughly balanced, and because of this an interesting innovation race took off.

One big name, fighting for the electric car, was Thomas Edison. Electric cars, back then, ran off rechargeable lead-acid batteries that were essentially the great-great grandfather of the auxiliary lead-acid batteries in today’s cars. Edison thought he could do better, and that brings me to today’s object.

Pictured above is a B-2 nickel-iron (or ‘Edison’) battery. The sectioning of the battery gives us a nice look at its internal workings and lets us see how it compares with later ‘dry cell’ batteries like the Columbia ignitor. B-2 is simply a model number used by Edison to distinguish batteries used for different purposes, much like today’s batteries are AA, AAA, C, D, and so on. This particular model was not used for electric cars (that responsibility fell to its big brother, the A cell); instead, the B-2 was typically reserved ‘for ignition, and other light work’. Other uses for Edison batteries included telegraphy, and running lamps and signals in mines, trains, and ships. Large nickel-iron batteries were even deployed in submarines in World War I.

One of its most desirable features was that the Edison battery was nigh-on indestructable; workers at Edison’s factory performed wear testing by repeatedly throwing the battery out a third-floor window. It was also rugged electrically; the cells could withstand being left uncharged for decades, before working just-like-new after a fresh charge and electrolyte top-up. Detroit Electric Car

Edison batteries were used to run another item in the Powerhouse collection: the Detroit Electric car (see right). In fact, Edison himself owned one. The Detroit electric boasted a range of about 130 km (if driven conservatively) and a top speed of around 50 km/h. There was a surge of popularity for such cars again during World War I, when the price of petrol rose sharply. A public charging point was even installed at Palmer Street in the Sydney CBD, allowing you to recharge your electric vehicle for a modest fee. (I find this revelation quite funny, as a century later, we’re having debates about ‘range anxiety’ on electric cars and how to recharge your electric car while on vacation).

So whatever happened to the nickel-iron battery? Why do we have a lead-acid battery under the hood of our car nowadays? It was probably a combination of things. The electric starter motor was invented in 1911, eliminating one of the biggest drawbacks of petrol cars. Part of it might be the limitations of the Edison battery: it cost more to manufacture than a lead-acid battery; it was greatly inefficient at low temperatures, rendering it almost useless in winter; and it performed poorly in situations where a high discharge or high recharge rate was required. I’d also speculate that the market also played a role: petrol car manufacturers likely had business agreements with certain battery companies. Because of its wide range of other uses, the Edison battery was produced for over half a century, with production only stopping after Edison Storage Battery Co. was acquired by Exide Batteries.

So if you happen to be digging around in the grandparents’ tool shed and find an old Edison battery, you can tell your friends that you’ve found a part of one of the first electric cars. Hell, if you feel like fun, replace the electrolyte, and try (carefully!) giving it a charge. It’ll probably still work.