Astonishing Science. Spectacular museum.
Oil painting by Sibley of Bennet Woodcroft (1803-1879).
Bennet Woodcroft (1803-1879) was an experimental engineer and consultant. He patented fundamental improvements in textile machinery and ship propulsion, and this led to an absorbing interest in the history of the patent procedure. As a result of a reorganization of the British Patent Office in 1852 he became Superintendent of Specifications. This gave him the opportunity to develop a private collection of historical machinery. When the South Kensington Museum was being planned in the mid-1850s the Patent Office, through Woodcroft, was invited to assemble a collection of industrial devices for display. When the Museum opened in 1857 the building thus incorporated a separate ‘Patent Office Museum’ and Woodcroft remained its driving force until he retired in 1876.
As a born collector Woodcroft displayed a passion for securing notable items of historical machinery. 1862 was a particularly fruitful year, when he saw to it that his museum secured ‘Puffing Billy’ the world’s oldest surviving steam railway locomotive (1814), Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ (1829), which set the design standard for locomotives, and the engine of Henry Bell’s ‘Comet’ (1812), the first steamship to be operated commercially in Europe. A letter to his subordinate at South Kensington typifies his single-minded approach: ‘Get the Comet engine in all its filth’ he commanded, emphasising the urgency of the quest. The Patent Office Museum also acquired several examples of stationary steam engine, including a Boulton and Watt beam engine which was the oldest surviving of its type in the world. After Woodcroft’s death in 1879 the Patent Office Museum lost its champion and in a further reorganization of the Patent Office its museum collection was transferred to the South Kensington Museum in 1883. Thus it became an integral part of the Science Museum when that emerged as a separate institution in 1909. Without Woodcroft it is doubtful if some of the most important artefacts of the first industrial revolution would have ever been preserved.