Great Inventors and Their Inventions - Frank Bachman

George Stephenson And The Invention Of The Locomotive

With Watt's steam engine to pump out the water and to hoist the coal, miners were going deeper into the earth, and were bringing out more coal than ever before. The "new giant" turned countless mills for grinding corn and wheat, and was harnessed to the machines lately invented for spinning and weaving cotton and wool. The day of cheap fuel, cheap food, and cheap clothing seemed at hand. One thing was lacking, a cheap means of carrying over land, fuel, wheat, cotton, wool, and the like, to the mill or factory; and of carrying the finished product to the market. There was great need of a locomotive which would do good work at a small cost. Men began to work on such a locomotive. They did not, of course, try to invent a new engine, but to modify Watt's engine, a stationary engine, so that it would be a serviceable moving engine. George Stephenson succeeded in doing this.

George Stephenson


His Parents and Home

About eight miles west of Newcastle, England, is the mining village of Wylam. Near the east end of the town there stands a two-storied house of four rooms. The lower west room was once the home of the Stephenson family. The floor of this single room, which served alike for kitchen, dining room, parlor, and sleeping room, was of clay. The walls were unplastered, and the rafters were bare. Here, on June 9, 1781, George Stephenson was born.

The father was the fireman of the Newcomen engine at the Wylam mine. With a wage of not more than a dollar and a half a week, and with six children in the family, there was scarcely enough for food and little to spare for clothing. So poor was the family, that none of the children were sent to school. But George received from his father and mother traits of character which were even better than riches, and made amends for his lack of early education. It was a trait of his to have definite ambitions. He set his hopes on an advance of one step at a time. When the desired position was secured, he was not satisfied, but prepared himself for a further advance.

Upward Step by Step

As soon as George was old enough, he was put to work. His first job was herding cows, at four cents a day.

Growing older and stronger, he was hired out to do light farm work. He drove horses, milked cows, and hoed in the garden. But he soon joined his brother James at the mine, as a "picker" to clean the coal of dirt and stones. His wages were now twelve cents a day, and they were increased to sixteen cents when he became driver of the gin horse.

Driving a gin horse was well enough, but George wanted to be an engineer. To be assistant fireman was the first step. Great was his joy when, at about fourteen, he was made assistant to his father, at the wage of twenty-five cents a day.

By the time he was fifteen George had become a fireman, and was still ambitious to be an engineer. He spent the greater part of his spare time in studying his engine and in learning how each part worked. It was a great event in his life when some two years later his wages were raised to three dollars a week. "I am now," he was heard to remark, "a made man for life."

Not long after this, a new mine was opened, and George became the engineer. It was his duty to run the engine, keep it in order, and look after the pumps. If for any reason the engine stopped, and he was unable to make it go, he was to call upon the chief engineer of the mine. But the youth knew every part of his engine so well that he never needed to call for help.

Modeling engines in clay was his main pastime. He made models of those which he had seen, and of others which were described to him. In this way he first heard of the engines of Boulton and Watt. Wanting to know more about them, he was told that he would find them described in books. Alas! George could not read,—he did not even know his letters. He thus found that to advance further, he must be able to get information from books. Although he was as large as a grown man, and was doing a man's work, he decided that he must go to night school.

He went to school three nights a week, taking lessons in reading, spelling, and writing. During one or two winters, he took lessons also in arithmetic. This was easy for him. The secret was his perseverance. He spent his spare time about the mine on his "sums." The problems solved during the day, he carried to his teacher in the evening, and received new "sums" for the following day.

George Stephenson


About this time, he decided to learn braking. A brakeman operates the machinery which hoists the coal. The work is responsible and well paid. A good friend allowed George to try his hand at the work, and although only twenty years of age, he was soon braking at another mine.

Thus, through attention to work and study, and through perseverance, George Stephenson advanced step by step from herdboy to brakeman; he educated himself, and became a skilled worker.

Further Improvement

To add to his wages, Stephenson took to mending and making shoes in the evening. Among the shoes sent to him was a pair belonging to the girl who became his wife, a young woman of sweet temper, kind disposition, and good common sense.

Happy in his work, and content in his home, Stephenson set about improving the spare hours of the evening more diligently than ever. He studied mechanics, and came to know thoroughly the engines of both Newcomen and Watt. He took also to modeling machines. One of these was a perpetual-motion machine. Though it proved a failure, as all others have, it gave him opportunity to whet his powers of invention.

Shortly after the death of his wife in 1806, Stephenson went to Scotland, to superintend, in a cotton factory, a Boulton and Watt engine. This gave him the chance he had long wanted, to work with one of those wonderful machines. He remained there a year, returning with more than a hundred dollars saved from his wages.

In the meantime his father had met with an accident. While he was inside of a Newcomen engine, a workman turned on the steam. The blast struck him full in the face, not only scalding him terribly, but putting out his eyes. The poor man struggled along against poverty as best he could. On the son's return, his first step was to pay his father's debts, and a little later he moved his parents to Killingworth, where they lived for many years, supported entirely by him.

An Engine Doctor

For some unknown reason, the engine at the High Pit, a coal mine near Killingworth, failed to work, and the miners were driven out by the water. The engineers of the neighborhood were called in, but each in turn failed to discover the trouble. One day Stephenson wandered over to the mine and examined the engine carefully. "Well, George," asked a miner, "what do you make o' her? Do you think you could do anything to improve her?"

"I could alter her," he replied, "and make her draw. In a week's time I could send you back to the bottom."

This conversation was reported to the manager, who in despair decided to give Stephenson a chance.

"George," said the manager, "they tell me that you think you can put the engine at High Pit to rights."

"Yes, sir, I think I could."

"If that's the case, I'll give you a fair trial . . . . The engineers hereabouts are all beat; and if you succeed in doing what they cannot do, you may depend upon it, I will make you a man for life."

The engine was taken to pieces, and many changes were made. These were completed in about three days, and the engine put to pumping. By ten o'clock that night the water was lower in the pit than it had been for a long time, and by the end of the week the workmen were "sent back to the bottom." Stephenson had made good his words.

His skill as an engine doctor was noised abroad. He was called upon to prescribe remedies for all the wheezy, creaky pumping engines of the neighborhood. As an engine doctor his wages were good, and he soon left the "regular" workmen behind. They in turn were jealous of him and looked upon him as a "quack." The manager of the High Pit, however, believed in him, and succeeded in 1812 in making him engine wright at Killingworth.

Educating his Son

Stephenson often thought of the difficulties he had in life because of his lack of schooling. He was determined to give his only son Robert, born in 1803, a good education. As soon as Robert was old enough he was sent to the parish school. The education to be had there scarcely went beyond the primer and writing, and it soon seemed best to send Robert to Newcastle. This was expensive, and Stephenson's earnings were small. Besides, he was the sole support of his afflicted parents. How was the money to be obtained? "I betook myself," said Stephenson long afterwards, "to mending my neighbors' clocks and watches at night, after my daily labor was done, and thus I procured the means of educating my son."

Robert went to and from Newcastle on a donkey. But it was not only Robert who was at school at Newcastle, his father was also at school there. Their evenings were spent together in going over the lessons of the next day. Books were brought from the library to be read. When the desired books could not be taken out, Robert would bring home descriptions and sketches for his father's information. The son thus helped to educate the father—but such a father! Do you wonder that Robert was later proud of saying that if his success had been great, it was mainly to the example and training of his father that he owed it?

George Stephenson


The First Railroads and Locomotives

Stephenson as engine wright at Killingworth not only had to keep the pumping and hoisting engines in repair, but it was also part of his duty to look after all the other machinery. As he traveled from mine to mine, he was on the lookout to find where improvements could be made. Among other improvements, he began to think about a locomotive.

The locomotive was still looked upon as a curious and expensive toy. Stephenson saw more clearly than most others of what great use it might be, not only in carrying coal to market, but in transporting all kinds of products. He turned all his knowledge of machinery, and all the power of his inventive mind, to the making of a locomotive.

There are three parts to a railroad: the locomotive, the cars, and the track on which these run. The first railways were tramways, used to haul coal from the mines to the wharves, where it was loaded on boats to be carried to distant cities. Such tramways were often ten to a dozen miles long. They were constructed by building a roadway more or less level, and by placing, upon wooden crossties, two wooden rails. At some mines, a thin plate of iron was nailed on the upper surface of the rails. Cast-iron rails, three or four feet long, were also common.

The cars had a large hopper-like, wooden body. This huge body rested on a wooden platform made of heavy wooden beams. These were fastened at each end to an iron axle, which connected the two supporting cast-iron wheels. A horse could draw, at the rate of two or three miles an hour, two or more of these cars, when loaded altogether with from eight to ten tons of coal.

Two parts of a railroad, the rail or tramway and the cars, were thus at hand when Stephenson set himself to make a locomotive. His object was to invent an engine which would take the place of horses on the tramways. Hence, his locomotive to be successful must do the same work, not only more satisfactorily, but at less cost than it could be done by horses.

The idea of such a locomotive did not originate with Stephenson, nor was he the first to make one. That honor belongs to Richard Trevithick, who built a locomotive as early as 1804. This locomotive was able to haul ten tons, along with the cars, men, fuel, and the like, at the rate of five or six miles an hour. For a short time it was in successful use. But it broke so many of the small cast-iron rails of which the road was made, and ran off the track so often, that it was soon put aside and the engine degraded to working a pump. The trouble was with the track and not with the engine. With a little more perseverance, Trevithick might have succeeded in making a successful locomotive and have risen to fame and fortune. But Trevithick was a genius, fond of trying new projects. He left his locomotive, after a few trial trips, to take care of itself, and thought no more about it.

No one devoted much attention to the locomotive for some time. Still, the idea was not lost. In 1811, Mr. Blenkinsop, a mine manager near Leeds, decided to build one. Blenkinsop followed Trevithick's design. The big flywheel was, however, omitted, while the new features were the two cylinders and a toothed wheel working in a rack rail.

This toothed wheel and rack rail were contrived to overcome an imaginary difficulty. Even the wisest men of the time thought that if a load were placed behind an engine, the "grip" or "bite" of its smooth wheels on the smooth rails would be so slight that the wheels of the engine would spin round and round in the same place and the engine never move. Naturally, Blenkinsop thought that the toothed wheel working in a rack rail was necessary, if his engine was to draw a load.

Blenkinsop's locomotive, when loaded lightly, traveled at the rate of ten miles an hour. It would draw ninety tons at three and a half miles an hour on a dead level, or fifteen tons up grade. The locomotive cost two thousand dollars, and did the work of sixteen horses. For more than twenty years it was in constant use, and was the first successful locomotive ever made.

Encouraged by Blenkinsop's success, Mr. Blackett, of Wylam, resolved to try a locomotive at his mine. The first one made for him "flew all to pieces" on first trial. He had a second one built, which like the first was modeled after Trevithick's and Blenkinsop's engines. The new locomotive had a flywheel, and the driving wheel was cogged and traveled in a rack rail. This engine was able to haul eight or nine loaded cars at the rate of a mile an hour. It was too heavy for the track, and the rails were always breaking. The driver was asked one day how he got on. "Get on?" said he, "We don't get on; we only get off!"

Puffing Billy


The chief cause of the failure was the cogged driving wheel working in the rack rail. Blackett learned by experiment that these were unnecessary. His third locomotive, built in 1813, was fitted with 61 smooth wheels. This new engine, Puffing Billy, was more of a success. It was easy to manage, and drew ten to fourteen loaded cars, having a combined weight of twenty tons, at the rate of four or five miles an hour.

Stephenson's First Locomotive

Stephenson's first engine, Blucher, was built in 1814. It was not much of a success. The best that Blucher  could do was to pull thirty tons on a grade, at the rate of four miles an hour. After a year's trial, it was found that it cost just as much to haul coal by steam power as by horse power. There was little encouragement in this, for the success of the locomotive depended on its economy.

Stephenson set to work with new vigor, and early in 1815 completed a second engine. This new engine had a wrought-iron boiler eight feet long and thirty-four inches through, with a single flue twenty inches in diameter. The flue was furnished with a steam blast. The steam blast or forced draft was one of Stephenson's wonderful inventions. In the earlier locomotives, the steam after doing its work in the cylinder was allowed to escape into the air, with a horrible hissing which terrified both man and beast. Stephenson noticed that the steam escaped with much greater speed from the cylinder than the smoke came from the smokestack. It occurred to him that if this escaping steam were turned into the smokestack, it would produce a draft. This, by increasing the intensity of the fire, would make it possible with the same size boiler to produce a greater amount of steam. The experiment was no sooner tried than the speed and the power of the engine were more than doubled. It is not too much to say that, without the forced draft, along with a boiler with a number of small tubes connecting the fire box and the smokestack, invented afterwards, locomotives might still be dragging along at a rate of not more than four or five miles an hour.

A Successful Locomotive

In Stephenson's first engine, the power was applied to the driving wheels by means of cogwheels. Stephenson saw that if the locomotive was to be a success, the power would have to be applied directly. In the new engine, the two cylinders were connected directly with the four driving wheels. To obtain the necessary freedom of motion, and to avoid the friction and jars due to rough places in the track, ball-and-socket joints were used to join the connecting rods with the crossheads of the cylinders, and with the crank pins of the driving wheels. Stephenson planned also to connect each pair of driving wheels by bars fastened to cranks in each axle. Workmen were, however, not able at this time to forge these cranks, and it was necessary, for the time being, to fall back on connecting chains.

Stephenson thus succeeded in making an engine having direct connection between the cylinders and the driving wheels, direct connection between all the wheels, and a forced draft. These are the essential points in all the engines which have been built since. Stephenson therefore accomplished for the locomotive, what Watt had done for the steam engine.

Building the First Steam Railroad

Although Stephenson's locomotives were in daily use at Killingworth, and had been for years, nobody paid any attention to them except a mine owner here and there. There seemed little prospect that the locomotive would come into general use. Stephenson, however, had a growing faith in his invention.

In 1821, Mr. Edward Pease obtained from Parliament authority to construct a tramway between Stockton and Darlington. Not many days later, a stranger called on Mr. Pease, describing himself as "only the engine wright at Killingworth." George Stephenson wished to be the engineer of the new road. Mr. Pease saw that he was the very man for the place.

When the Stockton and Darlington Railroad was planned, there was no thought of using locomotives on it. None of the directors had any faith in them. Stationary engines were to be put at the very steepest grades, but the bulk of the hauling was to be done by horses. Stephenson lost no chance to tell Mr. Pease of his locomotives. "One locomotive," said he, "is worth fifty horses. Come over to Killingworth and see what my engines can do; seeing is believing." Mr. Pease finally went to Killingworth and with him seeing was believing. Three of Stephenson's locomotives were ordered to be ready for the opening of the road.

As the time for opening the road came near, Stephenson became anxious. He was hopeful, however. At dinner with his son Robert one evening, he said: "I venture to tell you that I think you will live to see the day when railways will take the place of all other methods of conveyance in this country,—when mail coaches will go by railway, and railroads will become the great highways for the king and his subjects. The time is coming when it will be cheaper for a workman to travel upon a railway than to walk on foot. I know there are great difficulties to be faced; but what I have said will come to pass, as sure as you live. I only wish I may live to see the day, though I can scarcely hope for that, as I know how slow progress is, and with what difficulty I have been able to get the locomotive thus far adopted, notwithstanding my ten years' successful experiment at Killingworth."

The first of the three engines to be delivered was engine number one, Locomotion. These engines were built after Stephenson's latest plans, in his own factory at Newcastle. They did not differ much from the engines built eight or ten years before at Killingworth, but the workmanship was better.

George Stephenson


A great crowd gathered to see the new road opened. The locomotive was the center of attraction. Some came to rejoice, but many came to see the traveling engine blow up. A great procession was formed with engine number one at its head. Stephenson was the engineer. The train was made up of twelve cars loaded with coal and flour, a passenger coach for the directors and their friends, and twenty-one coal cars for other passengers, in all a train of thirty-four cars. At the head of the procession rode a man on a horse, carrying a banner with these words on it: "Private Risk is the Public's Gain."  At the signal, off started the great train. It moved at first at a rate of six to eight miles an hour. Stephenson finally decided to try the speed of the engine. He signaled the horseman to get out of the way, and put on the steam. The train now rushed toward Darlington at the rate of fifteen miles an hour, a marvelous speed for the day. The success of the engine excited great interest and admiration.

The number of passengers to be carried was a surprise. Not much had been thought of carrying passengers, and when the road was opened the company had only one passenger car, the Experiment. Other cars were soon added. The bodies of some old stagecoaches were bought and fastened to the wheels of coal cars. These passenger cars were first drawn by horses, but it was not long before one of Stephenson's locomotives could be seen steaming merrily along, drawing a train made up of a number of loaded coal cars and one or two of these grotesque passenger coaches.

Getting the Steam Railroad Accepted

The success of the Stockton and Darlington encouraged a group of men who contemplated building a railroad between Liverpool and Manchester. Some of them went to Killingworth to see Stephenson's engines. After seeing them, one of the men wrote: "Here is an engine that will before long effect a complete change in society. Mr. Stephenson is the greatest practical genius of the age, and if he develops the full powers of that engine his fame in the world will be equal to that of Watt." Naturally enough, when it was decided to build the new road, Stephenson was chosen engineer.

The new railroad stirred up much opposition, particularly among the owners of turnpikes and canals. The newspapers printed all sorts of ridiculous things. The railroad would keep the cows from grazing and the hens from laying. The poisonous smoke from the locomotives would kill the birds, the grass, and the trees. The sparks would burn all the houses along the way. There would no longer be any use for horses,—indeed, it would not be long before there would be no horses, and therefore oats and hay would be worthless. The price of land would be lowered, for it would be impossible to plow the neighboring fields, and dangerous to drive along the near-by wagon roads. Besides, any number of people would be killed by the bursting boilers. All these fears seem ridiculous to us, but they were very real then.

There was also great opposition in Parliament when the bill to construct the road was secured. People were not ready to believe that an engine could fly across the country, with hundreds of persons in its train, faster than the fleetest horse or dog could run. The very idea was absurd.

All sorts of amusing questions were asked: What would happen when the engine came to a curve in the track? How could an engine go in the face of a strong wind?

"Suppose now," said one member of Parliament, "that a cow got in the way of the engine; would not that be an awkward circumstance?"

"Yes," replied Stephenson, "very awkward for the cow."

Not only were Stephenson and his idea of a steam railroad ridiculed, but the best engineers of the day were called in to show that the road could not be built where Stephenson was going to build it. At one point the road passed over a great swamp, Chat Moss. "No engineer in his senses," said one of these experts, "would go through Chat Moss. Who but Mr. Stephenson would have thought of entering Chat Moss? It is ignorance . . . . Every part of the scheme shows that this man has applied himself to a subject of which he has no knowledge."

George Stephenson


Thus George Stephenson, "the engine wright of Killingworth," with only his practical knowledge to guide him and his genius to inspire him, battled for his ideas against the most learned men of the day. He stood alone. He was called "ignorant," "out of his senses," and "mad"; but as he said later, "I put up with every rebuff and went on with my plans, determined not to be put down."

When the Liverpool and Manchester road was nearly done, the directors were puzzled as to whether it was better to use stationary engines or locomotives. The engineers they consulted advised the use of a system of stationary engines placed at intervals along the way. Stephenson alone held out for the locomotive. With public opinion against him,—for the most frightful stories were told about how dangerous and terrible the locomotive was,—he urged his view upon the directors in and out of season. Even in his darkest hour, he declared: "Locomotive railroads will, before many years, be the great highways of the world." At length the directors decided to offer a prize of two thousand dollars for the best locomotive. Four were entered for the prize: the Novelty, the Sanspareil, the Rocket, and the Perseverance.

The Rocket was Stephenson's engine. It did not look much like the engines built at Killingworth or for the Stockton and Darlington, but the principles followed in making the Rocket were the same as in the earlier engines: few parts, and direct connection between the cylinders and the driving wheels. There was one important improvement. The earlier engines had a single large flue running through the boiler between the fire box and the smokestack. The Rocket was fitted with a boiler, in which there were twenty-five copper tubes, each three inches in diameter. This style of boiler, to be found now in all locomotives, made it easier to keep up the steam. The Rocket was therefore the best and fastest engine that Stephenson had built.

The trial was held at Rainhill, in 1829. Thousands of people, including many engineers and interested persons the world over, came to see the contest. The Novelty ran at the rate of twenty-four miles an hour, but it broke down. The Sanspareil  traveled at an average speed of fourteen miles an hour, but its pumps got out of order and it had to stop. The Perseverance  was unable to go more than four or five miles an hour, and was withdrawn from the contest. There yet remained the Rocket. On the Rocket, George Stephenson pinned all his hopes. He had battled for years for a great idea. He had done work and had faced difficulties which would have crushed many another man, but his courage had never failed him. Now, the Rocket  would show the world whether or not he was "ignorant," "out of his senses," and "mad," and whether or not the steam railroad would become the "great highway of the world."

The Rocket  made the trial trip at a maximum speed of twenty-nine miles an hour and at an average speed of fifteen. She met every condition of the contest. The spectators were greatly astonished at the wonderful performance.

The Rocket steam engine


The Liverpool and Manchester Railroad was opened to the public in 1830. The event was justly looked upon as of national importance, and there was a big celebration. A great procession went from Liverpool to Manchester and back again. Thousands upon thousands of people gathered along the way to view the great sight, but few of those who on that day saw a locomotive for the first time, realized the importance of the invention made by the "engine wright of Killingworth."

In a very few years after that memorable contest at Rainhill, many counties saw the locomotives busy hauling raw materials to the mills and factories, busy carrying the manufactured products where they were needed, and busy in speeding passengers from place to place. The different sections of the same county were thus brought nearer together. Frontier regions were easily settled, new industries were developed, and new markets opened. The locomotive is therefore to be ranked as one of the world's great inventions, and George Stephenson as one of the world's great men.