Toy Steam Engine


As a Christmas present for my eight-year-old son, I bought a miniature hammerworks and had the rubber gaskets (Sw. packningar) on my old steam engine replaced. The gaskets dried out years ago, so it’s never been possible to get the vapour pressure up in it. To my knowledge, Samuel had never seen a steam engine run before Christmas Eve.

That morning, we gave the kids their presents, and Samuel didn’t really understand what the hammerworks was for. “Errr… Thanks Dad, this looks really… fun…” So I told him we actually had a functioning steam engine too, and then the present got a lot better. I pre-boiled water, explaining to Samuel how the energy in the fuel pellets came from the sun, via ancient plants and petroleum, and how the engine would allow us to put the energy to use in the hammerworks. We filled up the boiler, screwed shut the valves, lit a tablet, and then I told Samuel to wait until we had a little pressure.

The sound of boiling came from the brass tank… The tablet gave off a cozy coaly smell… I encouraged Samuel to spin the flywheel… And the look of shocked surprise on my kid’s face as the thing started was absolutely priceless, instantly turning into delight as the little machine revved up like a living thing, spitting hot water and making some serious noise. It got even better and louder when we hooked up the hammerworks: the three little hammers beat on a hollow sheet copper workbench that chimed like a little bell. With the steam whistle, the engine made a huge racket. Three-year-old Signe loved it too.


Steam engines are great toys: interactive, multisensual, instructive and pretty. In the early 80s my kid brother got a simple one, just a boiler with a safety valve, some copper tubing, a cylinder and a flywheel. Did it have a whistle? Then I bought the engine I still have from another boy: it’s a lot more fun, with a steam whistle, a gear shift so you can get the flywheel to spin in either direction, and tubes that lead excess steam from the cylinder into a fake chimney. Both machines were of the Mamod brand, and looking around the net I realise that both were simple low-end models. But still, they’re fun! Used 80s machines similar to my brother’s sell for $40-60 on eBay.

A childhood friend had a really pointless steam engine. His was driven with electricity. I’m not kidding: the boiler had electrical heating instead of a burner, with a cord you plugged into the wall. This engine was a lot larger and more impressive-looking than mine, but can you imagine a steam engine without the fire and the smell of the fuel? This kid grew up to become an engineer and ended up in the arms industry. Figures.

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  1. #1 GreenmanTim
    December 31, 2006

    Lars, this is fascinating. I had never seen a hammerworks before, though we are great fans of steam engines in our house. There are some wonderful steam railways in the Northeastern US (a favorite being Strasburg Railroad in Lancester, PA).

    Cheers, GMT

  2. #2 Martin Rundkvist
    December 31, 2006

    Absolutely, trains are cool and steam trains are the best!

    (Who’s Lars?)

  3. #3 GreenmanTim
    January 1, 2007

    Cool fellow from France. Just not you, Martin. My apologies. 🙂

  4. #4 bernarda
    January 1, 2007

    Here is a site offering little technology projects made from simple materials.

  5. #5 Mark P
    January 2, 2007

    If you ever get the chance, ride the Durango&Silverton RR in Colorado. You will get plenty of that coal smoke smell, plus hearing that steam engine work as it pulls the cars up the grade is really cool. The view down into the gorge of the Animas River is great, too.

  6. #6 Martin Rundkvist
    January 2, 2007

    Sounds great! Once I’ve made enough money out of blogging I’ll retire and spend my days visiting places like that. I wonder how long it’s gonna take?

  7. #7 dhapmendra
    June 8, 2007

    i am a student and i am a paper model craft maker but i want sale our model and aur money but why idont know please tell me

  8. #8 Martin R
    June 8, 2007

    Yay, Dhapmendra, you’re in India!

    “I want to sell our model and aur money, but why, I don’t know.”

    Errr… Not sure I understand you.

  9. #9 Chris
    October 22, 2007

    The Mamod steam engines have quite a long history. The smell of meths (methylated spirits) and hot metal was all part of the fun. Your engine has a smarter safety valve than mine but otherwise looks identical to my childhood memories of 50 years ago. I still see these live steam stationary engines around in the markets and antique shops across Europe.

  10. #10 mike
    March 17, 2009

    Excelent read, and a lovely Mamod SE1 steam engine.

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