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The evolving history of hydraulics in London ben lee

In the late Victorian era, hydraulic power was in great demand in cities and was used to power many types of machinery, from cranes on the dockside to stage lifts in theatres.  In London especially, there was a huge need for hydraulic power and rather than have individual steam engines dotted around the city producing a lot of smoke, engineers decided to create several small pumping stations which could centrally serve the equipment that relied on hydraulic power more efficiently.  The most well-known pumping station was at Wapping, where the hall is still in use as a venue for exhibitions.  Set up in 1883, the station was part of a 52-bar pressure ring that served several places in London, and as electric power took over from hydraulics the company eventually ceased to trade.  The hydraulic ducts were left in place and over 100 years after the Wapping pumping station started working that same infrastructure was used to run fibre optic cables across London, without the need for digging up roads.


Tower Bridge is one of the most iconic sights of London and is on the must-see lists for tourist’s due to the impressive architecture and the magnificent sight of it opening and closing.  In 1894 the lift was powered by a 52-bar pressure, water hydraulic mechanism, which was run from an on-site steam engine (the amount of power needed at opening and closing times meant that it could not run on the central hydraulic ring, as it would draw most of the power away from other machinery).  Eighty years later, the water based hydraulic mechanism was replaced by a modern oil based hydraulic system, running on electro-hydraulic power packs.  The new hydraulic motor was integrated with the original Victorian lift mechanism in a delightful fusion of old and new technology, demonstrating that hydraulic power still has an important place in modern London.


The London Eye is the natural conclusion of this short history of evolving hydraulics in London, as it was designed and built to use hydraulic power to turn the wheel.  150Kw hydraulic power packs are used to turn the wheel through one complete rotation every half hour, and when you consider than the circumference of the wheel is 424 metres, this is no mean feat.  Of course, there are more examples of hydraulic power in London, both old and new, but these three examples show how adaptable it is and how even defunct hydraulic networks and buildings can be repurposed for the needs of modern Londoners.

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