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Richard Trevithick and the First Railway Locomotive

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Although many consider the first steam locomotive to be Stephenson's Rocket, the first steamer was in fact built 25 years previously by Richard Trevithick of Cornwall. A man with an always active mind, Trevithick pioneered the use of high pressure steam in many different industrial areas. These ranged from steam-powered pumping engines and steam locomotives, for road and rail, to mining machinery and agricultural machinery. Trevithick even attempted to tunnel under the Thames, and a full list of all his achievements can be seen here.

Early Enterprises

Richard Trevithick was born in Illogan, Cornwall, in 1771. He was educated at Camborne School and then went into work with his father at Wheal Treasury mine in Cornwall. This was where he first showed an aptitude for engineering and was soon promoted to engineer of the Ding Dong mine at Penzance. It was in 1796, after his experiences with heavy mining equipment, that he began experimenting with the novel idea of building a steam-powered locomotive, although at this stage he wasn't planning on having it run on rails. At first he concentrated on making a miniature locomotive, and after producing a working prototype he set his eyes on building a much larger steam road locomotive. It wasn't until Christmas Eve, 1801, that he finally managed it.

The locomotive he created, later known as Puffing Devil, had a cylindrical, horizontal boiler with a single horizontal cylinder leading into it. The piston, propelled back and forth in the cylinder by steam pressure, was linked by a piston rod and connecting rod to a crankshaft bearing a large flywheel which turned the driving wheels. Exhaust gases would be vented directly to the atmosphere via a large chimney. Unfortunately this locomotive was unable to maintain steam pressure for long periods of time. However this didn't discourage Trevithick, who travelled to London to try and market his design. Sadly it was regarded as too dangerous and uneconomical.

After many unsuccessful meetings his luck changed when, in 1803, Trevithick was employed by Samuel Homfray, the owner of the Penydarren Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. He was asked to produce a locomotive that would be able to transport iron from Penydarren to the nearest canal, and for this commission Trevithick, produced the world's first steam locomotive to run successfully on rails in February 1804.

The First of Many

On the 21 February, 1804, Trevithick's locomotive, with its single vertical cylinder, eight-foot flywheel and long piston-rod, managed to haul ten tons of iron, 70 passengers and five wagons from the ironworks at Penydarren to the Merthyr-Cardiff Canal. During the nine-mile journey the unnamed1 Penydarren locomotive reached speeds of nearly five miles an hour.

Unfortunately, technical difficulties meant Trevithick's locomotive only ever made three journeys. Each time, the seven-ton steam engine broke the cast iron rails, and Samuel Homfray came to the conclusion that Trevithick's invention was unlikely to reduce his transport costs so he decided to abandon the project in 1808. Later that year Trevithick developed a new locomotive he called Catch Me Who Can, which he ran on a circular track in Euston Square2, London, charging a shilling for a ride. Plenty of people were willing, especially since his locomotive reached speeds up to 12 mph, but once again the rails broke and he was forced to bring the enterprise to an end.

Further details of Trevithick's locomotives can be found here.

Pieces of Silver

After these failures, Trevithick never really recovered his enthusiasm for the project and ended up abandoning it and adapting his locomotive into a steam dredger. In 1816 he travelled to South America to develop steam engines for Peruvian silver mines, hoping to become wealthy, but circumstances were against him and he returned to England in 1827, penniless and obscure.

Richard Trevithick died in extreme poverty at the Bull Inn, Dartford, on 22 April, 1833. As he left no money for his burial he faced the prospect of a pauper's funeral. However, when a group of local factory workers heard the news, they raised enough money to provide a decent funeral and he was buried in Dartford churchyard.

Because of his important contribution to modern engineering, the Institution of Civil Engineers introduced their Trevithick Prize. This was a cash award and certificate presented annually for the best paper presented to the institution.

1Although officially unnamed, this locomotive was known locally as 'Captain Dick's Puffer'.2One of the University College London buildings on nearby Gower Street bears a plaque which commemorates the running of Catch Me Who Can nearby.

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