The British inventor and engineer responsible for this historic event was Richard Trevithick (1771-1833), the son of a mining captain and a miner’s daughter. Trevithick had grown up in Cornwall’s ore mining district, where coal had to be imported to fuel the early (and rather massive) steam-pumps, most notably those based on James Watt’s low-pressure steam vacuum engine (see January 19). Economising on coal consumpting and increasing the steam engine’s efficiency were priorities to which young Trevithick, among others, would soon apply his mind. He eventually realised that rather than condensing the steam, as Watt did, it should be made use of to the full. From 1797 onwards, he developed high-pressue steam models which, because they only required a cylinder for the steam to expand and develop pressure (and no condenser, air-pump, etc.), were much cheaper to build, lighter, smaller and more compact, and could be made to move.
In 1801, Trevithick publicly demonstrated the first steam carriage (a kind of road locomotive) called ‘Puffing Devil’, which was driven up a hill in Camborne, Cornwall. On March 24, 1802, he and his cousin Andrew Vivian managed to get the high-pressure steam engine patented.
Trevithick improved the design and demonstrated a more elaborate carriage model in London the following year. By 1804 he had the locomotive engine ready that could be used, instead of horses, for pulling wagons over existing tramways (wooden rails covered with iron plates) from the mines to the waterways. Locals had their doubts and even placed a wager of 500 guineas that the engine would fail to haul 10 tons of iron. It did not. On 21 February 1804, it pulled 5 wagons, 10 tons of iron, and 70 passengers over 9 miles from the Penydarren ironworks to the Merthyr-Cardiff Canal in South Wales, taking 4 hours and 5 minutes to arrive.
However, the machine was still too heavy for the iron-plated wooden tracks, and it took some years, the development of stronger rails and the improvement of the steam locomotive by others, such as Matthew Murray (1765 – 1826), William Hedley (1779 – 1843), Christopher Blackett (1751-1829), and finally George Stephenson (1781 – 1848), to make this powerful engine the major means of transport for people and goods for many decades to come.
More about Richard Trevithick and his rather tragic life:
- American Society of Mechanical Engineers
- Biography by his son Francis Trevithick at the Hathi Trust Digital Library