Corliss & Wheelock steam engine sold by Bonhams for £17,000, shown in situ at the former British Engineerium in Hove.

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At the same exhibition where the Eiffel Tower was officially launched, another less heralded but admirable testament to the extraordinary industrial innovation of the 19th century could be viewed.

The 91hp Corliss & Wheelock horizontal steam engine, built by Crepelle et Garand, Lille, was awarded grand prix at the Exposition Universelle, Paris 1889.

Still in working order, across the Channel 134 years later that engine came to auction on February 7-8 at Bonhams Knightsbridge (27.5/26/20/14.5% buyer’s premium) as part of The Connoisseur’s Library Sale.

Despite being an important item with a long working and exhibition history, it must have been rather tricky to pitch – for a start, it had to be moved from a former museum in Hove, East Sussex, where it was offered in situ by the current owner of the premises.

Bonhams went for a £20,000-30,000 guide in the end and it got away at £17,000 (or £21,675 including premium) to a private individual.

Made to last

The engine’s designer, George Henry Corliss (1817-88), lived and worked in the US. As a designer for the Corliss Steam Engine Company, where he eventually became president, he was known for his design for the ‘Corliss valve gear’ which incorporated semi-rotating valves housed within transverse ported tubes, integrally cast within the cylinder casting.

Bonhams specialist Joseph Robson said: “This engine characterises the synthesis of elegance and function that helped define the industrial period. Steam is admitted below the jacketed cylinder by a floor-mounted capstan main steam valve, of which there are very few examples in existence today.

“Its prize-winning inclusion at the Exposition Universelle represents a high point in industrial design, alongside the Eiffel Tower which was completed and displayed at the same exhibition. This is an exceptional piece of engineering, which not only beautifully conjures the image of a bygone industrial era, but also maintains functionality after more than a century.”

Installed in Sussex

Following the closure of the Exposition Universelle, the engine was erected at the hospital Emile Roux in Brévannes, south of Paris, where it continued to operate until approximately 1940. In 1975, it was excavated and transported to the British Engineerium, an industrial museum in a 19th century former water pumping station, where it was exhibited and professionally maintained.

The engineerium was opened in 1976 by Jonathan Minns, an expert in the field of mechanical antiquities, but it closed in 2006. Bonhams was about to stage an auction of the contents when a Sussex entrepreneur bought the whole collection just beforehand.

However, the museum contents came up for sale again in September 2019 when Bonhams did hold an auction to disperse the exhibits (the Corliss steam engine stayed put until this latest sale).

Lots sold in 2019 included a model purported to have been constructed by George Stephenson and a friend of the revolutionary Locomotion Number 1, the first engine built by the world’s first locomotive builder, which in 1825 took two hours to make the nine-mile journey from Darlington to Stockton. It took a premium-inclusive £175,062.50.

The plan now is to turn the engineerium site into a centre designed to promote health, happiness and wellbeing.