His first locomotive hauled coal. Rest is history

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)His work in the coal mines gave George Stephenson real-world knowledge of how things work. Here’s a drawing of a scale model of his 1829 Rocket locomotive.

In today’s world of high speed travel and instant communication, it’s difficult to imagine the problems, real and imagined, faced by early inventors and dreamers.

An illustration of imagined problems can be found in the development of steam power for hauling freight and people that occurred in England during the first two or three decades of the 19th century.

Due to the difficulty of moving heavy loads over rough dirt roads, wagonways or tramways were invented in Germany as early as the mid-1500s. The wagons originally had wooden wheels running on wooden rails, but in the mid-1700s it was found that cast iron wheels and rails lasted longer, and the trams or wagons were more easily pulled by horses or mules.

Then, in 1789, flanged wheels to hold the rails better were invented.

Steam engines had been around for 100 years or so and Richard Trevithick, built the first steam tramway locomotive for a Wales ironworks. On its maiden run in February 1804, the engine pulled five wagons loaded with 70 men and 10 tons of iron a distance of 9 miles in about 2 hours.

The name in the books

Instead of Trevithick, however, credit for the first steam railway engine is given to George Stephenson, born in 1781 in the north of England to a fireman for a coal mine steam pumping engine.

At age 17, George himself went to work in the mines, soon landing a job as a brakesman where he controlled the steam-powered hoisting gear, while saving his money and going to night school to learn to read and write.

While working at a mine in 1811, the pumping engine broke down, Stephenson offered to fix it and did so with such efficiency that he was promoted to enginewright, becoming responsible for all the mine’s engines.

Vexing traction problem

During this time, the chief impediment to railway development was the firm belief that iron wheels on iron rails would never be able to maintain enough traction to pull a load.

Various cures for this supposed problem were proposed: Trevithick theorized that to make the wheel rims rough by the addition of bolt or nail heads, or by cutting crosswise grooves in the rim would work. Another came up jwith a curious cog arrangement where the tops of the rails had projecting teeth, while the wheels had matching teeth which meshed with those on the rails.

Someone else thought a long chain stretched lengthwise between the rails and wound once around a grooved wheel under the engine would do the trick. In 1813, a man even proposed a pair of mechanical, walking legs to help push the locomotive along.

Finally, in 1814, someone had the bright idea of making actual experiments on the amount of traction between iron rails and drive wheels. Thus it was found that, if the rails are clean and the grade minimal, there was sufficient adhesion to allow the locomotive to progress without undue slippage.

Stephenson’s work

In 1814, George Stephenson built his first locomotive for hauling coal from the mine where he worked. A two-cylinder affair, it could haul 30 tons of coal upgrade at 4 mph, and it didn’t depend on cogs, chains, ropes or legs, relying for traction on just the contact between the flanged wheels and the rail.

Stephenson was then given the job of building an 8-mile line to take coal from a mine to a nearby town.

Due to the hilly terrain, part of the line was worked by stationary engines and cables, part by locomotives, and a downhill section by gravity the first such railway entirely independent of animal power.

In 1821, the House of Commons authorized a 25-mile horse-drawn railway between Stockton and Darlington and Stephenson convinced the builder to use steam instead of horses. The House was asked to approve the new plan, resulting, of course, in another round of hearings. During these, Stephenson testified and was asked if a locomotive could safely travel 5 or 6 mph.

His reply, that he thought even double that speed might be safely attained, astonished the august body. He also told them that he proposed to run 8 mph with a load of 20 tons and 4 mph with 40 tons, causing much laughter and wagging of heads in disbelief.

The House did, however, authorize the change and Stephenson, with the help of his 18-year-old son, Robert set to work.

Created new rails

The two surveyed the route and Stephenson decided to use a new rail that was rolled from wrought iron rather than cast iron rail which was prone to breakage. The rails were supported on cast iron chairs, with each chair resting on a wooden block.

Stephenson also established a company at Newcastle to make locomotives and in 1825 completed the first engine, named Locomotion, for the new line.

George Stephenson himself was at the controls as Locomotion made the first run on Sept. 27, 1825, pulling an 80-ton load of coal and flour, as well as a passenger car, the first of its kind, loaded with dignitaries.

On one stretch, Stephenson far outdid his original boast to the House of Commons by hitting 24 mph, and with an 80-ton load no less!

The new railway cut the cost for transporting coal by more than half, and soon Stephenson was recruited to build a 31-mile line from Manchester to the port of Liverpool.

Locomotive contest

A public competition was held to choose locomotives for the line and, in 1829, three entries began the test. Stephenson’s entry was called the Rocket and the other two were Sanspariel and Novelty, each of which had to traverse 1-1/2 miles of track 10 times in each direction and meet certain weight, speed and fuel requirements.

In the event, the Rocket was the only entry to finish and Stephenson won the prize. Stephenson, who died in 1848, went on to be rich and famous, a poor illiterate miner’s son who, through a determination to learn, lots of hard work, native ability, and a certain amount of luck, became successful and is still remembered today.

Poor Richard Trethivick died poor in 1833 and was buried in a pauper’s grave at Dartford, Kent.


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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.



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