Chapter 30: The Locomotive
By the 1820s, canal transport could no longer keep pace with the efficiencies of mass production in British factories. It would take a new machine – built by impressive (and often colorful) characters – to move freight and passengers on railways at previously unimaginable speeds.
Sources for this episode include:
Allitt, Patrick N. “The Industrial Revolution.” The Great Courses. 2014.
Rhodes, Richard. Energy: A Human History. Simon & Schuster. 2018.
Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. University of Chicago Press. 2010.
Weightman, Gavin. The Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World, 1776-1914. Grove Press. 2007.
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By 1822, the merchants of northern England had had enough. The Port of Liverpool was handling a gigantic share of global trade, thanks to the nearby city of Manchester.
Ever since strong steam power had popped onto the scene a few decades earlier, Manchester had started producing massive quantities of finished textile goods more efficiently than ever. The region’s canal system — once a modern and speedy means of moving said goods to the port — was now overwhelmed and unable to keep pace.
And so, some of the region’s merchants teamed up for a feasibility study, to see whether it would be practical to build a railway between the two cities.
By this point, railways had existed for well over a century. As you may remember from Chapter 6, mine operators in the 1700s realized that laying down tracks would allow their horses to more easily pull coal and minerals out of the collieries down to shipping outposts. Originally these rails were made of wood, but in the 1760s the descendants of ironmaster Abraham Darby in Coalbrookdale had started making rails of iron, which proved more durable.
By the turn of the 19th Century, there were approximately 1,500 of these short rail lines (totaling about 200 miles) across Great Britain. Then, in 1801, Parliament passed an act to establish a long-distance railway between several small towns south of London. Even though the freight vehicles on its line were pulled by horses, this Surrey Iron Railway proved considerably better than the roads of the age and could even rival the speed of canals – plus it was a lot less expensive to build than a canal.
Among the investors in the Surrey Iron Railway was a lawyer and mine prospector named William James.
Born in 1771, in the village of Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire, William James was among the most important and most overlooked visionaries of his day. Just like his father had, James received a good education and set up a law practice in town. He specialized in land property law and counted some members of the landed gentry among his clients – in particular, helping enclose their lands and set up coal mines on their properties. By 1812, he was successful enough that he also owned six mines in the Midlands in his own right.
As a land agent and as a mine owner, James was keenly aware of the benefits of railways. And as he traveled the country, he imagined railways going up everywhere. And he began to tell others about this vision, even drawing up plans for the routes they might take.
So, it was James who was hired to survey the lands between Liverpool and Manchester in 1822, to study the feasibility of a railroad between them and suggest a route. James and a team of men would cross fields and streams with a series of chains 22 yards long to track the distances. Also with them was a new, strange-looking instrument with a viewfinder on top of a tripod. This device was expensive and closely guarded by a big, muscular workman, in case one of the landowners whose lands they were crossing decided to send men out with muskets to confront the trespassers.
To James, it was a risk worth taking. He could remake the map of Britain, increase productivity, and put an end to the canal era.
Because, as James knew full well by this point, the railways no longer depended on horses. Over the previous 20 years now, several inventors had built machines capable of rolling along railway tracks powered with the same strong steam that created that boom in Manchester. Now it was time to put such a “locomotive” to use on the railway. And not even James could have conceived just how much change it was going to bring.
This is the Industrial Revolutions
Chapter 30: The Locomotive
The story of the locomotive begins, of course, with the steam engine.
James Watt had started building steam engines primarily to drain mines. Matthew Boulton had pushed him to adopt them for the rotary motions used in mills.
But it was their employee at the Boulton & Watt company, William Murdoch, who tried to modify the technology for uses in transportation. Murdoch had a tendency to get under Watt’s skin, and Watt generally considered these uses of his steam engine to be a distraction. So, when Murdoch designed and built a working model of a steam-powered carriage, Watt dismissed it.
Watt’s biggest problem with the Murdoch steam car was that it required a strong steam engine. And Watt was fundamentally opposed to strong steam.
As you may remember from Chapter 7, “strong steam” describes power of steam engines in which the steam pressure inside is at least 30 psi. To get that kind of pressure, the engine’s boiler needs to be inside its cylinder, creating enough power to move a piston up and down without needing the vacuum created by Watt’s special cooling-condenser.
Part of Watt’s opposition to strong steam was no doubt ego. He had made modern steam engines possible with that condenser – and if it was irrelevant, then perhaps he felt his life’s work would be irrelevant. But also, Watt knew that strong steam could be dangerous. If not operated properly, a high-pressure steam engine could easily explode and kill people.
But Murdoch still shared the idea around. And one of the people who probably learned from him about it was one of his old neighbors down in Redruth, Cornwall – another character from Chapter 7 – Richard Trevithick.
Known better to his friends as “Captain Dick” – and to others as “the Cornish Giant” for his giant stature – Trevithick had built some of the first strong steam engines, with steam pressure as high as 145 psi, that could run at 40 strokes per minute.
Well, on Christmas Eve, 1801, Trevithick decided to try out a new invention of his – essentially a plank resting on four wheels, carrying a massive, vertical steam engine with a 12-foot-high boiler. The steam engine’s power would rotate gears which, in turn, rotated the wheels running along the ground.
Engines like this were called “puffers” because they would puff steam exhaust directly into the air, rather than through one of Watt’s condensers. So, Trevithick called this vehicle of his the “Puffing Devil.”
Surprising everyone, he showed up on the high street of Camborne aboard his Puffing Devil and about 7 or 8 locals jumped on with him. With the engine on, the vehicle sped up until it was moving faster than one could walk. As one of the passengers said, decades later, it “went off like a little bird.”
The plan was to take it to go meet our old friend Davies Gilbert in the next village over, but it couldn’t traverse the rocky terrain very easily. They went about half a mile up Camborne Hill before they hit a gully and the Puffing Devil fell over. Nobody was hurt, but they decided to turn the vehicle around and head back.
The Puffing Devil is generally regarded as one of the first locomotives – “locomotive” deriving from the Latin for “motion from” somewhere. And it was also the inspiration behind the first ever in a long tradition of folk songs about locomotives: “Camborne Hill.”
The Puffing Devil was short-lived though. (Like very short lived.) After returning to Camborne they parked it in a shed and went off to the local pub to celebrate the Holiday. But they forgot to turn the boiler off. So, while they were toasting Captain Dick’s success, that success went up in flames, along with the shed.
Undeterred by the accident, Trevithick got help from his fellow Cornishman – and our old friend – Humphrey Davy to patent the locomotive. And word of the triumph got around. Within months, the Darby family up in Coalbrookdale commissioned Trevithick to build a locomotive for them, so they could move raw materials on the tracks in and out of their ironworks.
Soon after, a Welsh ironmaster named Samuel Homfray heard about the Puffing Devil and wrote to Trevithick for his help.
Homfray and his fellow iron founders in South Wales had invested in a canal some years earlier. But the largest shareholder in the canal was one Richard Crawshay, who argued that his barges should be given priority status on the route to Cardiff. So, to side-step Crawshay, the others built a horse-drawn railroad parallel to the canal. But feeding the horses was expensive and there was plenty of coal around, so Homfray thought, “Why not replace the horses with one of Trevithick’s locomotives?”
Trevithick accepted the challenge and got to work building the vehicle at Homfray’s ironworks at Penydarren.
Crawshay heard about the plan and declared the idea ridiculous. He bet Homfray 500 guineas (about $45,000 in modern terms) that a steam engine pulling freight on rail couldn’t beat a horse on a canal. Homfray took him up on it. If Travethick’s engine could haul five trams with ten tons of coal the length of the railway, and pull the empty trams back up the gentle incline, Crawshay would pay up.
On February 21, 1804, they held a trail run. Instead of coal, they hauled ten tons of bar iron, as well as 70 passengers, including Crawshay. It made it the full length of the railway at the impressive speed of 5 miles per hour. Crawshay paid up.
But Davies Gilbert, who made it to the demonstration, noted a problem with the trial. The locomotive was so heavy that it had cracked the iron tracks. And as we’ll see, this was going to be a problem with several more locomotives built over the next two decades.
Still, Trevithick was excited. He went on to build additional locomotives, including a smaller one called “Catch-Me-Who-Can” in 1808. Unlike the others, Catch-Me-Who-Can wasn’t built for a practical purpose, but rather as a tourist attraction in London. Trevithick built a circular track with a circular wall around it. Members of the public could pay a shilling to enter and see a demonstration of (and ride) the locomotive, which could get up to an unprecedented 12 miles per hour.
Although well publicized with ads in the local newspapers, few reports exist about Catch-Me-Who-Can. In fact, not many people went to see it in general – like most of Trevithick’s schemes, it was a major commercial flop and led him into bankruptcy. But there is evidence to suggest that among the people who did go see it was William James – and that seeing Catch-Me-Who-Can gave James his vision of locomotive-drawn railways across Britain.
And as it turned out, this idea of the locomotive had spread. In 1811, at a mine near Leeds, an employee named John Blenkinsop built a locomotive very similar to those made by Trevithick, but using tracks and wheels modeled on gears. Upon seeing it, a Nottingham man named Thomas Grey wrote a treatise about railways, published in 1820, arguing that they should be widespread, connecting London all the way to Edinburgh.
In 1813, a civil engineer named William Chapman designed a locomotive that would pull itself on a chain. Around that same time, one William Brunton designed a locomotive machine that would essentially walk, rather than roll. And in 1815, one William Hedley built a 4-track (rather than 2-track) locomotive called a “Wylam Dylly” in an attempt to solve the track-breaking problem.
But while the first locomotives were built by Trevithick in the far, southwest county of Cornwall, the first successful locomotives would be the product of a self-starter on the other side of the country, way up in the northeast county of Northumberland.
By using strong steam, Richard Trevithick had solved the first problem of the locomotive: Creating enough power to move the weight of the engine itself. But the engine was still so big that there was a second problem: Moving the locomotive without destroying the tracks it rolled along. Wood was obviously too soft and couldn’t handle the weight, and cast iron back then was too brittle for the impact.
The breakthrough came in 1820, when a little-known ironmaster named John Birkinshaw figured out how to roll out rails of wrought iron. Unlike cast iron, wrought iron is malleable with a much greater tensile strength. With this process, he could supply tracks to the proposed Stockton and Darlington Railway, which had contracted him. And this would secure a place in history for the guy who hired him: the “Father of Railways”.
George Stephenson was born in the village of Wylam in Northumberland in 1781. His father was a steam engine fireman in the local coalfields. The family was poor and illiterate, without the money for any kind of education for young George.
So, while still a child, he started working as a farmhand before going into the coal mines. And there, he began working as a picker, separating the coal from rocks. He was promoted to assistant fireman, then as a plugman, operating the valves of the steam-powered pumps. When he turned twenty, he was promoted to breakman, responsible for operating the winding mechanism that pulled coal-filled buckets up from the mine.
Beginning at age 18, Stephenson taught himself how to read and write, and he saved enough money to hire a tutor to teach him basic arithmetic. By age 22, he had grown competent enough in mechanics that he began moonlighting as a watch repairman, in addition to other odd jobs like shoe repairs and clock cleanings. At age 24, he briefly took a job operating a Watt steam engine that powered a Scottish textile mill, churning out uniforms for British soldiers in the war against Napoleon. But he returned home to work the mines in Northumberland so he could look after his father, who had recently been blinded by a steam engine explosion.
During these years, Stephenson had married a woman in her early thirties. In 1803, they had a son, Robert. But she died of TB three years later after an unsuccessful childbirth. So, in addition to his already incredible schedule, George was now raising Robert as a single father.
So, yeah, this is a hard life so far.
But the big breakthrough for the Stephensons came in 1813, when George’s employers, Sir Thomas Liddell (Baron Ravensworth), Stuart Wortley, and the Earl of Strathmore – three aristocrats who called themselves the “Grand Allies” – asked him to take over as engine-wright at their Killingworth colliery after the previous engine-wright was killed on the job. Stephenson accepted, and the Grand Allies put him to work building a locomotive like the ones some of their local competitors were now using.
What Stephenson recognized from the Trevithick engines that was so important was the concept of a “steam blast” system – that is, by directing the exhaust steam from the cylinders up through a chimney, you create a suction of air into the locomotive’s firebox, causing it to burn hotter and more efficiently.
He completed his engine the next year, which he dubbed the Blücher, named after a Prussian general. What made the Blücher stand out was its flanged wheels, keeping it on the tracks without expensive gear cogs. Among those it impressed was the industrialist William Losh of Losh, Wilson, & Bell (who you might remember from Chapter 15). Losh then hired Stephenson to work part time for them, building both locomotives and rails at their ironworks. In 1816, Losh and Stephenson took out a patent together for their work.
Five years later, their work was discovered by none other than William James. After years of having researched various locomotives, James decided the Stephenson-Losh engines were the best. He signed a contract with the two men to promote their system in southern England and Wales in exchange for 25% of any profits.
But soon the Stephenson-Losh partnership abruptly ended.
You see, in 1820, Stephenson was hired to help engineer the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which was built to transport coal from the mines up in Darlington down to ships anchored at Stockton. In that role, he hired Birkinshaw to produce wrought iron tracks, solving the long-standing problem of cracking rails. Losh was incensed that his iron was being cut out of the scheme and the two men had a major falling out. But it was worth it because the wrought iron tracks didn’t break.
To build the locomotives for the S&DR, Stephenson teamed up with a pair of brothers – the Quaker bankers Edward and Joseph Pease, who were also trustees of the S&DR – and in 1823 they started a new company in Newcastle. It would be managed by his now 20-year-old son: Robert Stephenson and Company. In 1825, the company produced the first of two locomotives ordered for the S&DR – the Locomotion No. 1.
The S&DR opened later that year to a crowd of 40,000 onlookers, as the Locomotion carried George Stephenson and 300 passengers to the Stockton quay. There they were greeted by a six-gun salute and a rendition of “God Save the King.” Still, it was a short line built with a limited purpose in mind. The first modern railway – between Liverpool and Manchester – was still in the works.
And things there had not gone swimmingly for James. His attention was divided between several ongoing projects, he was in poor health, and his finances were all over the place. In 1823 he was arrested for debt and held in the King’s Bench prison in London. As a result, his report on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was delayed and its frustrated promoters decided to sack him. Replacing James would be none other than George Stephenson.
Much like Losh had, James felt betrayed. For with that usurpation, William James fell out of the history books. And it would be George Stephenson who’d build the first modern railway.
The first thing George Stephenson had to do was re-do James’s survey of the route between Manchester and Liverpool. He quickly completed his report and then went to testify before Parliament so they could approve a bill authorizing the railroad. But he was unprepared for the tough questions MPs had regarding his plans, cost estimates, and even the need for a locomotive-driven railroad at all. His poor testimony led to the bill getting dropped.
So yet another survey was conducted by yet another surveyor, Charles Blacker Vignoles – a fascinating character in his own right, who went on to build many future railroads – and his team of engineers (including John Rennie, who you might remember for his work building the Albion Mills – shout out Chapter 23!)
What Vignoles understood (and Stephenson didn’t) was the politics. Parliament was dominated by landowners who weren’t crazy about approving an eminent domain bill. And they were being lobbied hard by the canal companies who feared the railroads.
So Vignoles avoided lands where the owners would put up a fight and he made sure that any bridges crossing canals were high enough to not disrupt the barges. For good measure, the railway investors also bribed a few MPs. Parliament approved the Act to create a Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1826. But the Liverpool and Manchester Railway company then turned on Vignoles – after several disagreements about how cautious they needed to be with things like bridges – and brought Stephenson back to lead construction.
Over the next few years the company raised money from about 300 shareholders and built the 31-mile line. They settled on a track width of 4 feet, 8 and ½ inches – which would end up being a standard gauge for most of the industrializing world. Today, about 60% of railroads across the globe use that width, including all railroads in the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, China, most countries in Europe and most countries the Middle East.
They also overcame some impressive feats of engineering – the most notable being the Chat Moss bog. One of the reasons it took so long to get the railway approved was that nobody believed you could get a solid road across that huge bog. Stephenson’s navies – yes, they were borrowing that word from the canals – poured thousands of tons of rock ballast into the bog to create a firm surface and then laid track across it. It took so long, that the company’s Board of Directors almost fired Stephenson again over the delays. But in the end, they figured they were in too deep with the sunk costs and called off the sacking.
To keep the track at a reasonable incline, they also had to build a long tunnel near the Liverpool end. Stephenson decided to illuminate it with gas lights across the ceiling and then charge the public a shilling to walk around in it – an experience which felt very modern to the folks of those days, as they’d never really seen land tunnels before.
As construction was nearing completion in 1829, the railway needed to purchase some locomotives. But the directors couldn’t agree on what kind of locomotive to get. In fact, they still couldn’t even all agree that the trains should be hauled by locomotives, rather than horses. So, they decided to hold a contest.
On May 1st that year, they ran an ad in the Liverpool Mercury inviting “engineers and iron founders” to submit plans. The contest winner would get a prize of £500.
Entries needed to meet a few specs. The locomotive had to be mounted on springs to make sure it weighed no more than six tons, including the water in the boiler. The engine had to operate between 45 and 60 psi but able to test at up to 150 psi. It had to consume its own smoke, to keep the route clear of ash. And it would need to pull a gross load of twenty tons at ten miles an hour back and forth along a mile-and-a-half track forty times.
As the treasurer of the company put it, applications came “From professors of philosophy down to the humblest mechanic… [from] England, America, and Continental Europe… Every scheme which the restless ingenuity or prolific imagination of man could devise was liberally offered to the Company…”
Most applications couldn’t meet the specs though. Five made the cut and were allowed to compete – albeit, one was invited only because the applicant was on the Board of Directors, but his horse-driven design was a total joke, and another one never made it to the track.
Among the other three, there was the locomotive Novelty, the creation of a Swedish immigrant who later went to the United States to build some of the world’s first screw-propeller steam ships. Another was Sans Pareil, built by the Master Mechanic of the S&DR. And then there was Stephenson’s entry in the competition, a locomotive called Rocket.
Novelty was an early favorite of these Rainhill Trials, as they were called. It flew at the bewildering speed of 30 miles an hour. Nobody had ever seen, nor could have reasonably expected, anything like it. As one onlooker described…
“It seemed indeed to fly, presenting one of the most sublime spectacles of human ingenuity and human daring the world has ever beheld. It actually made one giddy to look at it, and filled thousands with lively fears for the safety of the individuals who were on it, and who seemed not to run along the earth, but to fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind.”
But then, at a crucial moment, Novelty broke down. It was therefore disqualified. Sans Pareil seemed to perform well, but didn’t exactly knock anyone off their feet.
It was Stephenson’s Rocket that won. With a brilliant and meticulously designed engine – made possible with a new innovation, a multi-strand tubular boiler – as well as two pistons set at 45 degree angles (to move the wheels for optimal speed and traction) it averaged 15 miles per hour as it made the 60 mile round trip back and forth.
So not only did Stephenson get to build the first modern railroad, he got to supply the locomotives for it too.
The Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830. The Duke of Wellington, now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was in attendance and rode on the inaugural train, along with three future Prime Ministers. Tragedy struck though, when a William Huskisson – the President of the Board of Trade and a Member of Parliament representing Liverpool – went to greet Wellington’s train. As he did, he stepped in the way of another locomotive – Rocket – speeding down the adjacent track. Few people could yet conceive just how fast a vehicle could reach them when moving 20 miles an hour.
Rocket hit Huskisson and it very badly injured him. Stephenson sprang into action and put Huskisson on yet another train to rush to the nearest hospital in Manchester – going a whopping 36 miles an hour to save the man’s life. But he couldn’t. Huskisson died of his injuries – the first casualty of commercial rail.
Yet, despite the sad events of the inauguration, this first public railroad was a smashing success. In its first full calendar year it transported over 43,000 tons of cotton and over 11,000 tons of coal. By 1835, those figures shot up to 230,000 tons of cotton goods and 116,000 tons of coal. The nearby Bridgewater Canal (shout out Chapter 11!) had to lower its fees in an attempt to retain customers.
But while its success moving freight pleased investors, they had had no idea just how many people wanted to ride the trains. Demand for rides was ten times what they expected, as the Liverpool and Manchester Railway moved nearly half a million passengers a year. At first it was just a curious interest, but it soon developed into part of daily life – and it would determine where people would make their homes and where they would make their labor.
And this railway was particularly successful for George and Robert Stephenson. Not only was the father and son duo producing locomotives for the railroad, but they were getting notoriety all over the globe. They started receiving requests and commissions to build locomotives for railroads across Britain, across Europe, and across the world. “Railway Fever” had begun – next week, on the Industrial Revolutions.
In addition to next week’s episode on Railway Fever, watch for a special bonus episode this Friday. I’ll be visiting the California State Railroad Museum and talking with the museum’s director about the legacy of railroads in the United States and especially in California.