Recently I visited harp maker Bob Ballinger outside Melbourne. Bob invited me to see his new lathe on which he was making the front pillars of a batch of his latest lever harps. Little did I know that I was in for a real treat! After a life time of work as an industrial steam engine and steam turbine driver, Bob has the amazing ability to make almost anything from wood or metal. He also has a fascination with industrial history and the ‘old’ trade skills and crafts. When I visited Bob’s workshop I was delighted to find that the new lathe was being powered by a huge old steam engine fueled by a wood furnace. The steam plant runs belts that turn the lathe but not just any old lathe. No ….. Bob’s ‘new’ lathe in fact dates from the second half of the nineteenth century and was originally displayed in one of the Crystal Palace Exhibits in England after the Palace was moved to Sydenham Hill in 1852. Initially built for the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London, the Crystal Palace building was dismantled and reassembled in Sydenham Hill so that exhibits could continue to be accessed up until the early twentieth century. Bob’s lathe is an example of the latest metal turning technology of its time built by Henry Milnes of Bradford and a prototype of a type of lathe that the Milnes company later put into production.
Bob’s harps have a rich resonant sound and he puts an enormous amount of care and thought into their production. Bob not only restored the lathe so he could use it to make harps but he also restored the steam plant that powers it, which he named The Infant Hercules. Both are a testament to his incredible engineering skills. How his Crystal Palace lathe came to Australia is a story that I am sure Bob will happily tell you and a lot more history besides. How many harps are made in the world with steam technology – well I think that would be almost none!! Here are some photos of Bob turning the front pillar of a harp, his steam plant and the Crystal Palace lathe: