The credit for inventing the first workable steam rail locomotive must go to Richard Trevithick (1771-1833), but that is not to say that he was responsible for all the elements that comprise a rail loco, or that his invention was particularly successful. However, within the long history of the steam rail locomotive, his name deserves a prominent place.
The origins of the railway
The idea of using rails to guide a vehicle goes back a very long way. Indeed, it could be said that the grooves worn by carts on Roman roads were a form of railway. It is widely assumed that the reason why the standard rail gauge is four feet eight and a half inches is that this was the gauge of Roman war chariots, and it was sensible for all other vehicles to set their wheels at the same distance apart.
Be that as it may, horse-drawn vehicles had used flanged railways for centuries before locomotives were invented. These were used mainly in mines and quarries as a way of moving heavy loads safely, and were made of either wood or cast iron.
Steam engines were also developed for use in mines, particularly for the purpose of pumping out water. Here the main credit must go to James Watt (1736-1819), who improved earlier designs (particular that of Thomas Newcomen) to achieve greater efficiency in mine pumping and also to make steam engines feasible for use in driving factory machines. However, Watt did not favour the development of steam engines for locomotion, as he believed that they could not be operated in safety.
Richard Trevithick was a Cornishman who worked in the local tin mines, particularly on the steam engines then in use, and he made improvements so that they could be used as winding engines for lifting loads to the surface. His particular contribution was to develop a high-pressure engine that was more efficient than its predecessors. It was only by using high-pressure steam that a self-propelling engine would be made feasible.
The first locomotive
His first locomotive, built in 1796, was little more than a toy, but it used steam power to propel a miniature machine. However, by the end of 1801 he had built something that was far more substantial, namely a steam-driven road carriage that could carry up to seven people. His “Puffing Devil” had a single horizontal cylinder and incorporated a large flywheel to keep momentum going between each stroke of the piston. However, it could only go for short distances before literally running out of steam. It came to an unfortunate end when it broke down and the boiler overheated and exploded – fortunately after everyone had abandoned it and gone to the pub.
Undaunted, Trevithick was able to interest another Cornish engineer, Sir Humphrey Davy, and his cousin Andrew Vivian, which enabled him to gain a patent and build a new road engine, which he took to London and exhibited. However, when the frame of the engine became twisted, his supporters backed off.
On to the rails
Richard Trevithick then moved his operations to an ironworks in South Wales, where the first rail locomotive was built with the first demonstration run taking place on 21st February 1804. Five wagons, containing 70 men and 10 tons of iron, were hauled for more than nine miles at a speed of five miles an hour. However, the quality of the locomotive was not matched by the rails on which it ran, and a derailment on a later run meant that the engine had subsequently to be used as a stationary rather than a mobile machine.
Four years later, in 1808, Trevithick demonstrated “Catch Me Who Can” on a circular track in London. This was designed purely as a fairground attraction, with passengers being offered rides at a shilling a time, which was quite a lot of money in those days. However, it was again the track quality that proved to be inadequate, with a broken rail leading to its downfall as a commercial enterprise.
After that, Trevithick lost interest in further developing his invention and applied his skills in other areas, such as a mining venture in South America which came to nothing. He was, like many engineering geniuses, less adept at business and ended his life in poverty with his friends having to club together to pay for his funeral when he died in 1833.
The idea lives on
However, in 1805 a colleague of Trevithick’s, John Steele, had taken his designs to the north of England and built a locomotive for a coal mine at Wylam, near Newcastle, which was where George Stephenson lived. Stephenson developed the Trevithick engine into something that was far more powerful and reliable, and also had the business acumen that Trevithick lacked.
George Stephenson is rightly credited as being the “father of the railway”, and is famed as the builder of “Rocket”, the locomotive that won the Rainhill trials in 1829, but credit for being the inventor of the railway locomotive belongs to Richard Trevithick.
© John Welford