• FA-116148 © Technisches Museum Wien, Photo: Peter Sedlaczek
Collection Area
Energy & Mining
Mechanical Engineering
before 1800

The fire engine of Fischer von Erlach

A successful transfer of technology saved the Habsburg state from bankruptcy: the steam engine replaced overloaded waterwheels in the battle against pit water.

The English smith Thomas Newcomen built the first steam engine to work in practical operation in 1712. The efficiency of the ‘fire engine’ was 1 %. In spite of its enormous consumption in coal, this machine was successful in the coalfields of the British Isles, where miners were at risk of losing the battle against penetrating pit water.

The silver mines of the Austrian Monarchy were confronted with the same problem: miners dug for ore and reached ever greater depths. The waterwheels had reached their technical limits. In addition, there was the unpredictable nature of the weather: during long, dry periods, there was not enough motive water for the waterwheels; during periods of frost, all the water froze but the groundwater still flowed into the mines. The situation in the Imperial mines was as precarious as that of the treasury.

Joseph Emanuel Fischer, the son of the famous architect Fischer von Erlach, was commissioned to solve this problem. Fischer crucially improved the water supply of Göttweig Abbey. The experienced master of art had heard of Newcomen's engine and set off on a study trip to England.

The first atmospheric steam engine of the Monarchy was constructed in 1721 in Königsberg bei Schemnitz in what is today Slovakia. In the following year, one was constructed in the garden of the Schwarzenberg Palace. Both engines were built by the English engineer Isaac Potter and Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach. He improved the control of the engine imported from England and from 1730 he successfully built further installations in the Slovakian coalfields. The mines and budget of the Kaiser were saved. The Schwarzenberg fire engine fed the reservoir of a fountain – a very Baroque item. The model is part of the collections of the Technisches Museum Wien (Vienna Technical Museum).

Model: 1:28.8

Inv.Nr. 690
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