This Victorian-era Engineer's Scale Model Tea Rolling Machine, or tea rolling table, is a rare and fascinating artifact of industrial engineering. Before the introduction of these mechanical processors in the 1880s, tea had to be rolled by hand, much in the way it had been done in China for centuries. Rolling, or bruising the tea, is a necessary step in the oxidation process needed to create black, oolong and fermented teas. The leaves are pressure treated by the action of rolling in order to break the microscopic chloroplasts within, which starts the chain reaction that turns the once green leaves brown. This gives tea not only its characteristic color but also its renowned flavor. The length of time the tea is allowed to oxidize determines its taste.
This incredible engineer's model was created to approximately 1:8 scale and is not only precise to the last detail to show the actual machine's workings, but it is also quite beautiful. Crafted of brass, bronze and white metal, the model illustrates perfectly the process of rolling tea. The drum would be filled with freshly-picked tea leaves, and the handle above would be turned to press the leaves down. The drum is attached to in three places to the "table" via rotating joints. When turned on, the drum would pivot in a circular motion just above the table surface, pressing down and grinding the tea leaves across the table's grooved surface. This creates the "bruising" action that allows the tea to oxidize. The crushed leaves would be collected and brought to a wilting room where the tea would be left to ripen to achieve the desired flavor.
Second only to water, tea remains the most consumed beverage in the world. Tea was introduced to the West via the Portuguese who imported it from China. It's wonderful flavor, high price and exotic nature helped to spread the popularity of the beverage throughout Europe by the 17th century. China had been the only supplier of tea to the entirety of Europe up until the British East India Company lost its trading ties with Canton in 1833. This prompted the British government to explore the possibility of opening plantations in India, and by 1839, the first teas from India were exported to London. The increase in demand for tea created a need to examine and find a way to quicken the refining process. The rolling of the leaves was seen as the greatest hurdle, and several attempts were made at mechanizing this vital step. The most significant advancement came in 1873 when inventor Williams Jackson introduced his tea rolling machine, which inspired all future tea rolling machines, including the version our scale model is based upon. In fact, tea rolling machines used today vary very little from Jackson's designs, save for the use of electricity versus oil engines. Now, instead of taking hours for several workers to roll leaves by hand, a single worker could roll tea leaves in a matter of minutes.