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[This article was first published in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.313 of 20th May 2009
and is No.2 in the series Seven Engineering Marvels of Melbourne ]

As you walk around Melbourne you often become aware that there is at least as much history underneath your feet as there is in the buildings which tower above you. Next time you are in a city street or lane, see if you can spot a metal cover on the footpath or the road labelled ‘Hydraulic Service Power Department’.

Once the Yan Yean Reservoir had been built, the centre of the city was soon plumbed with what country folk call ‘town water’. The pressure of the mains water was enough to drive simple hydraulic equipment. In fact there is a warehouse in the city which has a goods lift and several churches with passenger lifts whose lifting power is provided by mains water.

However really heavy lifting needs more ‘grunt’ and that’s where George Swinburne and his uncle came in. They set up the Hydraulic Service Power Company to pump water at high pressure underneath the city in specially constructed pipes. Hydraulic power works on the simple principle of a piston, some fluid, a holding tank and pressure. Many of us have seen our car driven onto a frame on the floor. The mechanic turns a knob and a piston underneath the frame rises out of the floor as the valve allows fluid under pressure to flow into the piston. He then wanders around under your car shaking his head. Each shake of the head equals $72. He then turns the valve to slowly release the pressure making sure your car hits the floor with sufficient force to necessitate more repairs.

The advantage of a system like this is that it requires no overhead support. The trusses in the roof of Joes Qality Repez are having enough trouble holding up a few sheets of corrugated iron. They could never take the weight of your car, but they don’t have to. The load is supported from below. One disadvantage is that Joe has to have a hole underneath the floor to accommodate the piston of at least the same depth as the height he wants your car to rise.

Water under pressure form the Hydraulic Service Power Company could thus do its best work when lifting heavy, bulky loads slowly over short distances. It was used for cranes in the docks and several of Melbourne’s theatres still have evidence backstage of the water hydraulics that were used to make heavy scenery appear magically from below the stage. Hydraulic power was not just used for lifting. It was put to use in a variety of different ways including operating wool presses, and once you become aware of it you will start to see clues all around the city. And of course, the fire department was delighted to have access to a stream of water of sufficient power to reach the tops of buildings.

However, despite this infrastructure being hidden away under or feet or in basements and factories, there is one very visible manifestation of George’s hydraulic power company. The height of commercial buildings had been restricted by just how many flights of stairs you could convince workers (and more crucially, bosses) to walk up and down on a regular basis. The arrival of the water powered hydraulic lift changed Melbourne’s skyline and offices rose to dizzying heights of up to ten stories. The early hydraulic lifts were clumsy affairs that were difficult to control and produced some hair-raising experiences for the occupants, but they continued to improve. The real drawback was the same as at Joes Qality Repez. If you wanted a lift to travel up ten floors, then you needed a hole ten stories deep to accommodate the piston. When drilling through bluestone, the hole could sometimes cost as much as the building or even send the developer bankrupt.

With the arrival of electricity and winding motors, electric lifts soon started to have an impact. Hydraulics fought back. Instead of having a piston ten stories long you could have it one story long with real grunt and through a series of gears and pulleys convey a lift the full ten stories. You can see the remains of some of this machinery in some city basements.

The act of parliament allowing the hydraulic power pipes to run underneath the streets had a sunset clause so the City Council was able to take over the extensive infrastructure in 1925. This makes it Melbourne’s first major formal BOOT project where private enterprise Built, Owned, Operated and then Transferred the service to public ownership. Once taken over by the council the name was changed from HSPC to Hydraulic Service Power Department. At its height the infrastructure covered the city and a number of inner suburbs with many miles of pipe. Electric passenger lifts gradually took over from hydraulics, but water hydraulics continued to be valued for industrial purposes where serious muscle was required. It was finally turned off in 1967.

Melbourne didn’t have the only hydraulic service in the world. There were similar ones in Sydney, London, New York and other major cities. However, most acknowledge the one built by George and his uncle in Melbourne to represent the finest example of engineering. So, next time you are in the city and come across a metal plate in the ground labelled Hydraulic Service Power Department, could we suggest that you pause briefly and acknowledge a man who helped create the skyline of this city and who had a passion for education.


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