In 1879 the International Exhibition at the Garden Palace in Sydney included a display of the latest technological and industrial innovation in New South Wales and the Australian colonies.  People flocked to the Botanic Gardens to marvel at the latest inventions in transport, communications and industry.  Exhibitors were invited to show their latest product or development to show the advances being made in the young colony.

With the end of the Exhibition it was decided that the exhibits would form the basis of a new technology museum collection to be held at the Palace.  Sadly, in 1882 the Palace burnt down in one of Sydney’s most spectacular urban fires.  The much of the collection was also lost, but what remained was then relocated to a pavilion in the Outer Domain.  Renamed as the Technical, Industrial and Sanitary Museum (which hints at its focus), by 1886 it had outgrown its pavilion and visitors complained of the cramped conditions and difficulty in viewing the displays.  25,000 items were in the collection by 1887.

In 1888 the museum was presented with the Whitbread historical steam engine.  Coming from a London Brewery, the engine was then 102 years old.  Built in 1785 by Bolton and Watt it remains as one of the most significant pieces of industrial technology on display at the Powerhouse and is the oldest operation steam engine in the world.  With donations of this calibre, it became increasing obvious that a purpose built museum was needed.

The old Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Harris Street (SLNSW)
The old Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Harris Street (SLNSW)

In 1892-93 the decision was made to build a new museum as part of the Technical College in Harris Street Ultimo.  By this time the collection was under the direction of the Minister for Public Instruction, who also managed the Technical College.  As the centre for technical education, and surrounded by industry, wool stores and trades, Ultimo was considered the perfect fit for the new museum of technology.

The new building opened in August 1893 and was quickly a popular attraction.

Six years later, in 1899 further north on Harris Street, a new powerhouse was opened to provide electrical power to the growing Sydney tram network.  The first electric tram line ran from George Street to Harris Street, utilising the powerhouse supply and reinforcing Ultimo’s place as Sydney technological and industrial hub.  The powerhouse later also supplied power to the Sydney train network.  It operated until 1963.  The ending of the tam network in Sydney (back now though) and better power supply for the trains made the site obsolete.  The gradual closure of the woolsheds from the early 1970s onwards also marked the end of the industrial expansion of the Ultimo area.

In 1988, as part of the Bicentennial celebrations,  the old Technology Museum  moved into the former Ultimo Powerhouse.  The building was a perfect fit for the scale and size of many of the exhibits, with the vast spaces of the old power station allowed trains to be on full display, the Whitbread steam engine to work its magic, for airplanes and other large scale displays to be suspended from the rafters, and enough floor space to have permanent displays of small items and large travelling exhibitions.  It also saw the museum renamed to be the Powerhouse Museum.

In February this year the NSW Government announced that the Powerhouse would be relocated to Parramatta and the site sold for developers.  A new museum for Parramatta is a great idea, but seeing as the Powerhouse has enough stuff in its Castle Hill storage for 3 museums, build a new one and keep the old one in its historical precinct.