Bruce Comfort's masterpiece

I called in on my friend, Bruce Comfort. In his garage – sorry, workshop – he showed me parts of his latest project.

'Oamaru's first public power station opened in September 1918,' he said. 'And you know how it was powered, don't you?'

I did. Water.

'True, but you'd be amazed how many people think the water came from Oamaru creek. No! Of course not! It came from the borough race!'

The borough race was a system of aqueducts and tunnels that brought water from the river Waitaki to a reservoir on a hill above Oamaru. It cost an enormous amount of money but was a staggering feat of engineering. For a start, the race was 40 km long; for another, it was deliberately designed to provide power as well as copious amounts of clean water for domestic use and fighting fires. In the late 19th century, Oamaru's mills, grain stores and freezing works were powered by Pelton wheels, an early type of turbine turned by water under high pressure. Even the Empire Hotel had a Pelton wheel, though no one is quite sure what for.

It was only a matter of time before the town had an electricity supply powered by water. Sure enough, engineers designed a system based on a Pelton wheel, housed in a single-storey building on the corner of Chelmer Street and Cross Street. The Pelton wheel, manufactured in England by Gilbert Gilkes, provided power for the next 30 years – albeit it mainly at times of peak demand. It was used for the last time in December 1954 and later dismantled. Although the building still stands, the machinery is long gone.

Ah, but this is Bruce Comfort we're talking about! He saw the centenary coming and decided to do something about it. He tracked down a remarkably similar Pelton wheel which was languishing on farm land on the west coast and simply had to have it. He showed me pictures of it being pulled unceremoniously out of the ground. A local haulier lent him a truck and a driver to get it back to Oamaru.

Since then, it has been taken apart, sand blasted and coated, piece by piece. A few of the smaller components are in Bruce's workshop, still in their grey primer, waiting for the gloss coat which will finish them off beautifully. The Pelton wheel itself is away being professionally refurbished.

'Once it's all finished, what will you do with it?' I asked.

Bruce showed me a picture of the land where the reassembled machine will be set up for all to see. 'Part of the outer casing will be cut away so people can see the actual wheel,' he explained. 'I'm hoping we will be able to let visitors crank it and see the wheel turn, but that depends on health and safety.'

In Penguins under the Porch, I describe Bruce's small but perfectly formed Pelton wheel, mounted on a home-made trolley and linked to a vintage CD generator. That wheel is about 40 cm across. This one is more like 400 cm and has two rows of scoops, called impellers. Water enters under high pressure and as it hits the impellers, the turbine turns. Waste water drains harmlessly away.

'I had brilliant news yesterday,' Bruce said. I got confirmation from Gary Kircher, the mayor, that he has given a grant of $500 towards the cost of the project. It's a great help!'

It's late May now. Will the Pelton wheel be installed in time for the centenary in September? You better believe it.

Follow the story on Bruce's Facebook page, Oamaru Yesterday:

(And by the way – Gilkes are still making turbines in Kendal, Cumbria. I hope they send someone to see Bruce's masterpiece!)


The Gilkes Pelton wheel in its unrestored state (photo by Bruce Comfort)

The Gilkes Pelton wheel in its unrestored state (photo by Bruce Comfort)