“There be three things which make a nation prosperous, a fertile soil, busy workshops, and easy conveyance for men and commodities from one place to another.” So wrote Francis bacon four centuries ago. The fertile soil this county had; the busy workshops had been given us by those who had put to use the mighty power of steam; and the easy conveyance came with the highest embodiment of that power, the locomotive, the thing that moves of itself, the most wonderful achievement of human ingenuity, for it is nearest to life.
Heat may or may not be a mode of motion; but it is assuredly a cause of motion, and the commonest cause. Far back in the development of mankind came the discovery and subjugation of fire; then came the water boiling in the pot; and ages afterwards the bold adventurer who put the lid on the kettle and was the first to imprison steam, as he who invented the spout was the first to put steam under control. Who they were no one knows, nor in most cases even in our own time does any one know the name of the real inventor. The man who invents is not the man to talk and persuade, but to do. He is dumb, and many of the inventions made by the man are ascribed to the master who found the money to patent them with and the agents to introduce them. And such is not the only sort of false representation in this connection, for the grim giant steam, as dumb as the inventor, did the work that was wanted and gave the nation the prosperity usually ascribed to the adoption of a theory of economics, and is doing it still wherever the theory is rejected.
Railways have never been given the credit that is their due. The majority who knew them in their infancy had little but evil to say of them. That majority’s children gave as cold a welcome to the bicycle, and we know how their children’s children treat the motor-
They were an invention, and there is no one more generally disliked than the inventor until after his death, when he gains nothing by his work, and then the community claim him as one of themselves and boast of what “we” have done. He is the great disturber of capital, the encourager of the speculative, the introducer of new ways, the founder amid many failures of industries competing with industries that seem to have existed for ever, of trades taking the place of trades that are always at their best in the final stage of the contest that ends in their replacement. It is easy to sneer at antiquity until we are reminded that we are doing as our ancestors did under similar circumstances; and the opponents of railways are secure of at least a little sympathy as one result of that knowledge of the past required to realise what railways have done for us.
We are approaching a period of power when with electricity and internal combustion there promises to be no limit to speed; but steam raised the rate of movement to fivefold what it was a century ago. “What is the use of all this hurry?” some will think it right to say, just as in those far-
Speed? There is fascination about it that all feel, whether they admit it or not, for there is nothing in the animal world that would not go faster if it could. Who without a thrill has seen the Cornishman sweep by on the way to the west -
The locomotive is the most interesting of machines for the same reason as the steam-
We all know what we mean by a railway, but it is as well to remember that the railway is essentially the road, the rail-
The history of the road specially prepared for fast or heavy traffic would take us back a long way; let it be enough to note that on the 4th of August 1555 there was a tram from the west end of the Bridge Gate in Barnard Castle for the repairing of which Ambrose Middleton, in his will, left twenty shillings. The word tram seems to have been used in the north of England and south of Scotland as descriptive of the special track and the truck that ran on it. The track was of timbers laid lengthways; the trucks were hauled by men or horses. It was these railways with their rails of timber “exactly straight and parallel”, running along the old wayleaves, that Roger North found in 1676, on which the “carts with four rowlets” carried the coals from the collieries to the Tyne.
When these rails were first faced with iron we do not know, but in 1734 cast-
Thirteen years afterwards John Smeaton’s pupil, William Jessop, improved upon this, at Smeaton’s suggestion, by placing a narrow iron edge rail on his line between Nanpantan and the Loughborough Canal and using inner-
JESSOP RAIL (1789)
Rails were cast without the feet in 1797 in the Newcastle coalfield: they were placed on the so-
One other should be mentioned as a survival, the old lime line from Ticknall to the Ashby Canal constructed in 1799 by Benjamin Outram, who laid so many lines that the word tram was said to have come from the last syllable of his name. But there were trams before there were Outrams, and the derivation is now only quoted as an aid to memory. This Ticknall tram-
OUTRAM’S TICKNALL TRAM-
In 1799 it was proposed to lay a line from London to Portsmouth, and for the first portion of this the Surrey Iron Railway Company was formed, and obtained its Act of Parliament in 1801. This was the first railway company, the first public railway, and the first Railway Act so-
Between the Surrey’s Act of 1801 and the Stockton & Darlington’s in 1821, there were no fewer than nineteen Railway Acts, five of which were allowed to lapse. Among the others there were, in 1802, the Carmarthenshire and the Sirhowy, now absorbed by the North Western; in 1804 the Oystermouth (Swansea to the Mumbles), which is still working independently, and is in that sense the oldest existing railway; in 1808 the Kilmarnock & Troon, now part of the Glasgow & South Western; in 1809 the Gloucester & Cheltenham, and the Forest of Dean, now included in the Midland and the Great Western; and in 1817 the Mansfield & Pinxton, now part of the Midland.
Like their predecessors for fifty years or more, they were plate ways rather than railways, and the men who laid them were the platelayers, whose name has ever since been applied to the layers and repairers of the track. In several cases these old flat roads were the nuclei of later schemes, and, like the old Surrey, they can be traced in the sections which were abandoned. They were there long before the coming of the steam-
At Redruth in 1797 lived two men to whom the world owes much. William Murdock was in the house in Cross Street in which he invented gas lighting, and, within a stone’s throw, at Moreton House, lived Richard Trevithick. Murdock had been in Cornwall for eighteen years as engineer to Boulton & Watt, and was to leave it in 1799 to be the superintendent of their works at Soho. The two were opponents in business, Murdock being very much engaged in erecting Watt’s engines and looking after Watt’s interests, while “Captain Dick” was the most prominent of the Cornishmen who were using every endeavour to evade or improve upon Watt’s patents.
In 1759 John Robison, before he sailed for Quebec, was helping Watt to invent a locomotive, and Watt included the use of steam for land transport in his patents. But he seems to have left the matter alone, and certainly discouraged any experiments about it among the staff of the Birmingham works. Murdock, however, away at Redruth, had a freer hand, and took up this problem of making a wheeled carriage that would move of itself.
One evening, wishing to put his model to the test, he went to the walk leading to Redruth church. This was narrow, kept rolled like a garden walk, and bounded on each side by a high hedge. It was dark and he was alone. Lighting the lamp under the boiler he got up steam, and off started the locomotive with the inventor in chase of it. Soon he heard shouts of terror. Following up the machine he found that the cries proceeded from the parson who, going into the town on business, was met on the lonely road by the fiery little traveller. According to the parson’s daughter, her father and mother, returning from the town, were somewhat startled by a fizzing sound, and saw a little thing on the road moving in a zigzag way. Murdock was with it; her parents knew him well. They understood that he wished the experiment to be kept secret, and she did not recollect ever hearing of it afterwards. Whichever story be accepted, it is clear that Murdock made a model, and that it moved of itself on Redruth church path.
He seems to have made two models at the least. One, according to Wilson, reporting to the firm on the 9th of August 1786, had a 1½ in. stroke; another, which is in the Birmingham Art Gallery, had a stroke of 2⅛ in.; and about this, or a third one, there is a letter of importance among those now at Soho which cleared up the mystery why Murdock did not persevere with his work on the self-
Boulton, going into Cornwall, met a coach near Exeter in which he caught sight of Murdock. He got down at once, and Murdock also alighted. According to Boulton they had a parley for some time. “He said he was going to London to get men; but I soon found he was going there with his steam carriage to show it and take out a patent, he having been told by Mr. Wm. Wilkinson what Sadler has said, and he has likewise read in the newspaper Symington’s puff, which has rekindled all William’s fire and impatience to make steam carriages. However, I prevailed upon him to return to Cornwall by the next day’s diligence, and he accordingly arrived here this day,” 2nd of September 1786, “at noon, since which he hath unpacked his carriage and made it travel a mile or two in Rivers’s great room, making it carry the fire-
Murdock had ventured on high-
In 1797, when he was six-
Shortly afterwards another model was made which ran round the table, or the room. Its boiler and engine were in one piece; hot water was poured into the boiler, and a red-
The model was experimented with and improved upon in many ways for some three years before Trevithick ventured on building a machine of full size. While this was in hand he entered on an inquiry as to whether the wheels of a self-
On Christmas Eve 1801 the engine was ready, and the first load of passengers was moved by steam on what is known in the neighbourhood as “Captain Dick’s Puffer”. The rain was coming down heavily, the road in places was rough with loose stones, and the gradient such that the wise cyclist walks his machine up, but “she went off like a little bird” for three-
On the 22nd of August 1802 Trevithick was at Coalbrookdale erecting a pumping engine, and wrote from there to Giddy, “The Dale Company have begun a carriage at their own cost for the railroads, and are forcing it with all expedition”, but of this little further is known. Later in the year he was in Cornwall building another locomotive which he brought with him to London in 1803, where he learnt from the varieties of paving that such machines would be more efficient on a smooth iron road. And in October he was at the Penydaren Ironworks, near Merthyr Tydvil, building the engine with which the railway era is frequently said to begin.
This was designed for many uses and worked on the tram-
The London engineer had been sent down by the Government with a view to ordering similar engines if this one passed certain tests, these being -
On the Tuesday the great run took place from the works to the Navigation House. “Yesterday,” wrote Trevithick to Giddy, “we proceeded on our journey with the engine; we carried 10 tons of iron, five wagons, and seventy men riding on them the whole of the journey. It is above nine miles, which we performed in four hours and five minutes. The engine, while working, went nearly five miles per hour; no water was put into the boiler from the time we started until we arrived at our journey’s end. The coal consumed was 2 cwt. On our return home, about four miles from the shipping place of the iron, one of the small bolts that fastened the axle to the boiler broke, and all the water ran out of the boiler, which prevented the return of the engine until this evening.”
The engine continued working, and ten days afterwards was tried with 25 tons of iron. “We were more than a match for that weight,” writes Trevithick to Giddy; and continues, “the steam is delivered into the chimney above the damper; when the damper is shut the steam makes its appearance at the top of the chimney; but when open none can be seen. It makes the draught much stronger by going up the chimney; no flame appears.” On the 10th of July we have Homfray writing to Giddy, “Trevithick went down the tramroad twice since you left us, with 10 tons each time,” so that it must have been kept on duty for some months before it was withdrawn to work the rolling mill. William Richards was its first driver, and he drove no other engine all his life though he was engine-
During the rest of the year Trevithick was busy about the country superintending the erection of his high-
This Gateshead engine was the first with flanged wheels, but these did not suit the Wylam track which then had wooden rails. Three years afterwards these were replaced with the cast-
During the next ten years several other engines were built by Trevithick, who was a man of many inventions. For some years he was busy with a steam dredger for the Thames and his iron tanks for water cisterns. He was the engineer of the first Thames Tunnel, that of 1809; two years afterwards he built the first steam threshing machine, for Hawkins, and followed this by the steam plough. In 1812 came the Cornish pumping engine as we know it; and in 1815 his screw propeller for steamships for which he proposed a boiler with small tubes through which went the water, not the fire; being, in fact, the first water-
THE FIRST PASSENGER ENGINE (1808). (FROM TREVITHICK’S VISITING CARD.)
In 1808 he was in London running his Catch-
During 1814 he became connected with a scheme for working certain mines in Peru in the Cornish manner, and he built at Hayle nine of his pumping engines which were shipped for Lima, three of his friends going out with them. Their reports were so favourable that in October 1816 he left for the land of promise, and for seven years he prospered so that he became worth nearly half a million of money; and then the War of Independence broke out by which he was ruined, the natives, looking upon him as a Spanish emissary, blowing up his engine-
In 1805 and thereabouts he had been frequently on Tyneside among the enginemen and others. Twenty-
When George Stephenson made Trevithick’s acquaintance he had just moved to the West Moor Pit at Killingworth as brakesman. His struggle upward from herding cows at twopence a day had been long and was not over. It is easy to give the years, reeling them off one after the other, and forget that each consisted of twelve months; and it was more than two hundred and fifty months before he began to earn £2 a week. He is credited with more than his due, for in the days when the opposition to railways was at its fiercest it was necessary for parliamentary and advertising purposes to magnify his reputation as an authority on every branch of engineering. He was not the “father of the railway engine” -
In 1811 John Blenkinsop patented (No. 3431) a rail with “a toothed rack or longitudinal piece of cast iron or other fit material having the teeth or protuberances or other parts of the nature of teeth standing either upwards, downwards or sideways” with the intervals of which “a wheel having teeth or protuberances” would engage; and thus he became the originator of our mountain-
Blenkinsop patented the principle of the rack and wheel, not the engine or “carriage” as he called it. The engines he used were designed and built by Matthew Murray, and had two cylinders, as recommended by Trevithick in his patent of 1802, so arranged that the cranks were at right angles to each other, thus getting over the difficulty of starting. They were the first engines with two cylinders, the first with six wheels -
In 1812 Stephenson was appointed engine-
BLENKINSOP RAIL AND CHAIR (1811)
At first this, like his experimental engine of 1811, which was a failure, had four wheels, but as it broke down the cast-
Stephenson carefully watched them working on the road that ran past the cottage in which he was born in 1781, and came to the conclusion he could improve upon them as well as on the Coxlodge engines; and in 1814 he built Blucher, his first locomotive. To begin with, this was rather a failure, but as soon as he turned the waste steam into the funnel as Trevithick had done he doubled the power and made it a success, thus leading on to his Killingworth engine of 1815. At first this had coupling-
WYLAM RAIL (1808)
The same chain-
Some of the Scottish tram-
The engines were waiting for the roads to be strong enough to carry them. Cast-
And these, without improvement, still are used,
Was in the work of famous Birkinshaw!”
But enough of these old roads. The year the first engine went to Scotland a railway was projected from Darlington to Stockton-
[From Our Home Railways by W J Gordon, published 1910]