The International Steam Pages
Temples of Steam - The Rice Mills of Burma
Since 2005, my wife, Yuehong, and I have visited Burma (Myanmar) a number of times to research the stationary steam engines in the country's thousands of rice mills. It has been a fascinating experience and you can follow the links below to the summary pages for our various trips; each, in turn, contains links to individual reports. Later rice mill visits are mixed up with the 'tourist stuff', please use the link above to access them:
I was told about the rice mills more than 5 years ago by John Raby, he said he had heard that there were maybe more than 2500 of them all over the lowlands of the country where rice is grown. It was a natural extension of my interest in Java's sugar mills to pay an extended visit to research just what was left. Mechanisation of the separation of the rice grains from the husks appears to date from the time of the British Raj, and nearly all the original pre-Second World War machinery, if it carries a name at all, bears that of British manufacturers. It seems we have now visited the majority of areas with significant steam activity and we have found that within each State/Division the activity varies appreciably by district. There are a number of factors at work, I am sure that the main reason for the survival of steam power in quantity is the absence of any kind of reliable 24/7 electrical supply in most of the country, at least two mills are using an engine to power a generator for electric motors. For, instance in the area south of Pyay, steam is strongest furthest from the city and again wanes nearer Yangon. The liberalisation of the rice trade a few years back means that in some areas many mills have closed, farmers now being free to make their own arrangements for processing their harvest. Many steam mills have seen little investment and the old, poorly maintained equipment produces poor quality rice with many broken bits which will fetch a low price. On the other hand, some millers (particularly but not exclusively in Irrawaddy Division and also around Shwebo in Sagaing Division) are building new mills which are steam powered. They appreciate that the current low price for electricity (when it is available) is unsustainable and that when economic reforms are completed, they will be very competitive.
On our first visit, we were told there are several thousand (mainly small) private rice mills in the country, certainly a lot less than half use steam power but that is still an awful lot of engines..... So how many stationary steam engines are there left here? I would say of the order of 500 - 1000; it is impossible to estimate more precisely because of the number of them which are derelict or out of use, the total might even be higher. And how many still earn their living? At least 300, (we have seen well over 250 and know of many more which are 'runners'), a more exact figure cannot be given with any confidence because not all mills are registered and inaccessible mills in remote areas may well continue to use steam. Our reports on this website are deliberately selective, designed to give a flavour of the country rather than be a definitive account. Having seen it happen in China with steam locomotives, I am painfully aware of the 'Lonely Planet Effect' and if you want to see these mills for yourself, you are going to have to co-operate with us (and more specifically our guide friend Han) or repeat the whole painful learning process we have been through. Even those mills which work all through the year have days off while they accumulate enough rice to mill or repair their equipment. Some mills may only operate on a few days a year which is rather unfortunate if they happen to possess an unusual type of engine. Each visit sees us log fewer and fewer 'new' working mills, we could easily have boosted our total by assiduously revisiting mills with standard engines but simply it's not worth the effort.
The names of Tangye and Marshall dominate the scene, with maybe rather more than a quarter of the market each, the Marshalls being generally later, more sophisticated and larger machines than the Tangyes. Jessop appeared to have been the main Tangye agents for some time and their plates are found on some engines. However, a lot of other names appear and no doubt others too are represented because many engines (especially very old ones) carry no mark. The following is a list of what we have found, at least one example active unless indicated otherwise, more information (eg based on the unidentified engines shown in the various reports) to flesh it out would be very welcome indeed. While most engines we have seen were delivered new here, it seems that quite a few came second hand, especially once the British mills went over to electricity, this may explain the appearance of some oddball small makers who would definitely not have had the resources to get into the export business.
The links will open a new window. In some cases this will be to an extended report in which the one known example is shown. Otherwise it will be a page which shows a number of that manufacturer's products, these pictures will have appeared previously on this site but are now grouped together for convenience as well.
Ajax Iron Works, Corry, Pa., USA (only one, semi-derelict)
Although we have seen only one engine marked for MacDonalds as possible manufacturers, the term "MacDonald Engine" appears on several engines including at least what seem to be several near standard Tangyes with no identification save "Hosain Hamadanee" and a Tangye number - see below. Many people in the mills also use the generic term "MacDonald Engine", for an engine with narrow parallel frames and two or four separate bar crossheads, maybe it was once the industry standard. "MacDonald Engine" is on more than one of the Geo. Garrett engines and another similar with no other identification. Some late Geo. Garretts are also Tangyes. This is a very murky area.
The name James Tate & Co., Bradford, England appears on two machines on a (disused) electrical emergency stop device - I am unclear whether they also made engines.
For an idea of the problems I have in this area, please see the My Best Friend is a Steam Engine Agent ... page. It's a VERY BIG page indeed. But compared to a page of the great unknowns it would be tiny...
The following appear and were definitely agents:
Old time agents:
John Birch, Engineers, London, I know they represented Richard
Garrett and Davey Paxman and no doubt others!
The following appear and are assumed agents although often there are no manufacturers' names on the engines:
The Rangoon Electrical Stores, surely the same as the Rangoon Mechanical & Electrical
Stores, Maung Bazaar, 5, Strand Road and may have been the same as the
Standard Electrical & Motor Works, Rangoon, all seen around the country. I
believe I have also seen Burma Electrical Stores, Rangoon but I can't trace the
origin of this observation!
Modern agents - at least to judge from the plates, my guess is that these were secondhand engine dealers:
Harry H. Gardam & Co Ltd, Engineers, Church Street, Staines
Overall this is a very murky area which with the Second World War and the passage of time is unlikely ever to be resolved.
One engine bears "C.R. Co" but no other identification, three others have an entwined "RSJ" on the valve chest cover, the latter likely to be for Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies.
There are quite a few duplex pumps at the mills used to pump water, very similar to those in Java's sugar mills but at the smaller end of the size range. Few see much use.
Hayward Tyler, London
Other names appear on disused duplex pumps, of course these
could be manufacturers or agents:
We saw one active vertical cylinder pump marked Lee Howl, Engineers, Tipton, England. There are other derelict pumps, the name Blair, Campbell & McLean Ltd, Glasgow 1920 was noted on one.
Of other engines we also saw a small disused Robey generator.
The mill boilers (fired by the rice husks) are similarly a complete miscellany, although time constraints did not allow proper examination and record keeping. Most appear to be of relatively recent local manufacture, others supplied originally, being both vertical and horizontal. Nearly all have no identification at all. There are boilers formerly from steam locomotives (we were shown one said to be from a YB), road rollers and portable engines etc. Names which do appear on boilers include:
Babcock and Wilcox, Oldbury, England
The engines broadly fall into two groups. Older engines have a cast (under) frame on which the various parts are mounted (cylinder block etc). Newer engines have their parts just bolted together linearly. We have seen just one complete working over-boiler engine, another out of use, one stored and another working with the boiler out of use. Many of the smaller engines we saw seem to have been supplied as portables where the engine and boiler have now been separated - in such cases the firebox doors have been blocked and fire grates for the husks added underneath. Clues that this has happened include a rounded fixing point under the cylinders and the presence (or signs of the presence) of a regulator ahead of the cylinder(s), even a chimney crutch.
These are all non-reversing engines. Almost all use slide valves, exceptionally a few machines have piston valves and a few machines drop valves or variants. The vast majority have a single eccentric Stephenson's type valve gear. Most of the later Marshall engine were built with twin eccentrics although many of them these days work with just one and no cut-off adjustment. Others still have Marshall's own (Hartnell) governor which operates directly on the gear system to control steam admission, this needs both eccentrics to work and hence the engines are 'complete'. Some Tangye's had been fitted with their patent Tangye-Johnson system with a second eccentric but these have mostly been removed. Pickering (type) governors predominate, many Tangye engines have their company's governors, but there are many unmarked examples.
We have seen a number of compound engines, but they are very much in the minority - rice mill owners in Burma like their engines 'simple'. Tandem compounds seem twice as common as cross compounds and it has been an extremely rare joy to see one at work.
By and large cylinder stroke is twice that of the cylinder diameter, we recorded many sizes as reported by the mills (we made no measurements), but many Tangye engines, for example, have a small plate with the size (eg 10" x 20"). 10" and 12" engines were the most common but many other sizes between 6" and 16" were noted working (low pressure compound cylinders were up to 20"), a few engines were clearly smaller but none was working. Some engines have their sizes cast on the cylinders. Rated horsepower was again anecdotal, but in the range 20HP up to over 100HP. Working boiler pressures were generally below 100 psi and engine speeds of the order of 90-100 rpm. The use of multiple belts means that it is easy to adjust the speed at which the power is actually delivered to individual components of the mills.
I was always certain that other industries in the country would still use stationary steam engines and, although I had little time to follow this up, it seems that pockets of such activity remain. I saw two engines which have been stored following their sale by sawmills (many big engines were said to have been bought secondhand from sawmills) and have visited a groundnut oil mill with an engine used during that season (said to be between June and October), but in Pyay one such mill owner told us that all the mills in that area now used electricity, even though they still keep their boilers (using the shells as fuel) as steam is needed in the processing. Later we saw a rice mill converted to a peanut oil mill. We were told of areas with steam powered sawmills but they were not readily visited - a friend of mine saw a working saw mill in Central Burma in 2000. The rice husks produced by a good mill are far more than it needs for its own fuel purposes and in major centres with many rice mills there are large numbers of other chimneys which indicate boilers used for other purposes. The railway workshop at Insein in 2005 had a derelict Ruston (and Hornsby) engine which had been used as a generator and a Cowan's steam crane under repair had a small Worthington-Simpson duplex pump.
These are links to the summary pages for our various trips to Burma. In turn, they contain links to individual reports:
Read more about our travels, follow the links in Rob and Yuehong in Burma, 2005 - 10.
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson