Hydraulic power network

A hydraulic power network is a system of interconnected pipes carrying pressurized liquid used to transmit mechanical power from a power source, like a pump, to hydraulic equipment like lifts or motors. The system is analogous to an electrical grid transmitting power from a generating station to end-users. Only a few hydraulic power transmission networks are still in use; modern hydraulic equipment has a pump built into the machine. In the late 19th century, a hydraulic network might have been used in a factory, with a central steam engine or water turbine driving a pump and a system of high-pressure pipes transmitting power to various machines.

In Newcastle upon Tyne, a solicitor called William Armstrong, who had been experimenting with water-powered machines, was working for a firm of solicitors who were appointed to act on behalf of the Whittle Dene Water Company. The water company had been set up to supply Newcastle with drinking water, and Armstrong was appointed secretary at the first meeting of shareholders. Soon afterwards, he wrote to Newcastle Town Council, suggesting that the cranes on the quay should be converted to hydraulic power. He was required to carry out the work at his own expense, but would be rewarded if the conversion was a success. It was, and he set up the Newcastle Cranage Company, which received an order for the conversion of the other four cranes. Further work followed, with the engineer from Liverpool Docks visiting Newcastle and being impressed by a demonstration of the crane's versatility, given by the crane driver John Thorburn, known locally as "Hydraulic Jack".

The man responsible for the Hull system was Edward B. Ellington, who had risen to become the managing director of the Hydraulic Engineering Company, based in Chester, since first joining it in 1869. At the time of its installation, such a scheme seemed like "a leap in the dark", according to R. H. Tweddell writing in 1895, but despite a lack of enthusiasm for the scheme, Ellington pushed ahead and used it as a test bed for both the mechanical and the commercial aspects of the idea. He was eventually involved on some level in most of the hydraulic power networks of Britain. The success of such systems led to them being installed in places as far away as Antwerp in Belgium, Melbourne and Sydney in Australia, and Buenos Aires in Argentina.

The best-known public hydraulic network was the citywide network of the London Hydraulic Power Company. This was formed in 1882, as the General Hydraulic Power Company, with Ellington as the consulting engineer. By 1883, another enterprise, the Wharves and Warehouses Steam Power and Hydraulic Pressure Company, had begun to operate, with 7 miles (11 km) of pressure mains on both sides of the River Thames. These supplied cranes, dock gates, and other heavy machinery. Under the terms of an Act of Parliament obtained in 1884, the two companies amalgamated to become the London Hydraulic Power Company. Initially supplying 17.75 million gallons (80.7 megalitres) of high-pressure water each day, this had risen to 1,650 million gallons (7,500 megalitres) by 1927, when the company was powering around 8,000 machines from the supply. They maintained 184 miles (296 km) of mains at 700 psi (48 bar), which covered an area reaching Pentonville in the north, Limehouse in the east, Nine Elms and Bermondsey in the south and Earls Court and Notting Hill in the west.

A system began operating in Liverpool in 1888. It was an offshoot of the London-based General Hydraulic Power Company, and was authorised by acts of Parliament obtained in 1884 and 1887. By 1890, some 16 miles (26 km) of mains had been installed, supplied by a pumping station at Athol Street, on the bank of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Although water was originally taken from the canal, cleaner water supplied by Liverpool Corporation was in use by 1890, removing the need for a filtration plant. At this time two pumpsets were in use, and a third was being installed. Pressure was maintained by two accumulators, each with an 18-inch (460 mm) diameter piston with a stroke of 20 feet (6.1 m). The Practical Engineer quoted the pressure as 75 pounds per square inch (5.2 bar), but this is unlikely to be correct by comparison with other systems. A second pumping station at Grafton Street was operational by 1909. The system ceased operation in 1971.

Birmingham obtained its system in 1891, when the Dalton Street hydraulic station opened. In an unusual move, J. W. Gray, the Water Department engineer for the city, had been laying pressure mains beneath the streets for some years, anticipating the need for such a system. The hydraulic station used Otto 'Silent' type gas engines, and had two accumulators, with an 18-inch (460 mm) diameter piston, a stroke of 20 feet (6.1 m) and each loaded with a 93-tonne weight. The gas engines were started by a small hydraulic engine, which used the hydraulic energy stored in the accumulators, and all equipment was supplied by Ellington's company. Very few documents describing the details of the system are known to exist.

All of the British systems were designed to provide power for intermittent processes, such as the operation of dock gates or cranes. The system installed at Antwerp was somewhat different, in that its primary purpose was the production of electricity for lighting. It was commissioned in 1894, and used pumping engines producing a total of 1,000 hp (750 kW) to supply water at 750 psi (52 bar). Ellington, writing in 1895, stated that he found it difficult to see that this was an economical use of hydraulic power, although tests conducted at his works at Chester in October 1894 showed that efficiencies of 59 per cent could be achieved using a Pelton wheel directly coupled to a dynamo.

The system was operated as a commercial enterprise until 1925, after which the business and its assets reverted to the City of Melbourne, as specified by the original act. One of the early improvements made by the City Council was to consolidate the system. The steam pumps were replaced by new electric pumps, located in the Spencer Street power station, which thus supplied both electric power and hydraulic power to the city. The hydraulic system continued to operate under municipal ownership until December 1967.

Geneva created a public system in 1879, using a 300 hp (220 kW) steam engine installed at the Pont de la Machine to pump water from Lake Geneva, which provided drinking water and a pressurized water supply for the city. The water power was used by about a hundred small workshops having Schmid type water engines installed. The power of the engines was between 1 and 4 hp (0.75 and 2.98 kW) and the water was supplied at a pressure of 2 to 3 bars (29 to 44 psi).

The distribution network used three different pressure levels. The drinking water supply used the lowest pressure, while the intermediate and the high pressure mains served as hydraulic power networks. The intermediate pressure mains operated at 6.5 bars (94 psi) and by 1896 some 51 miles (82 km) of pipework had been installed. It was used for powering 130 Schmid type water engines with a gross power of 230 hp (170 kW). The high pressure network had an operating pressure of 14 bars (200 psi) bar and had a total length of 58 miles (93 km). It was used to power 207 turbines and motors, as well as elevator drives, and had a gross power of 3,000 hp (2,200 kW).

A number of artefacts, including the buildings used as pumping stations, have survived the demise of public hydraulic power networks. In Hull, the Machell Street pumping station has been reused as a workshop. The building still supports the sectional cast-iron roof tank used to allow the silt-laden water of the River Hull to settle, and is marked by a Blue plaque, to commemorate its importance. In London, Bermondsey pumping station, built in 1902, is in use as an engineering works, but retains its chimney and accumulator tower, while the station at Wapping is virtually complete, retaining all of its equipment, which is still in working order. The building is grade II* listed because of its completeness.

 

 


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