It is Richard Trevithick (1771-1883), and not, as some might say, George Stephenson, who is the true father of steam locomotion, having invented, built, and demonstrated the first steam locomotives to run on rails. Despite his many great ideas and inventions, Trevithick's contribution to nineteenth-century industrialisation, and to the use of steam power in general, has only relatively recently been rescued from the margins of popular history.


The answer could well be that for all his brilliance, Trevithick wasn't a particularly lucky man(1).

In 1804, the year after he was commissioned by Merthyr Tydfil Ironworks owner Samuel Homfray to produce a locomotive capable of transporting iron from the ironworks to the nearest canal, Trevithick's Penydarren locomotive made its maiden run. In making this run, the Penydarren became the first steam engine to run successfully on rails. For this alone - not to mention the road travelling steam locomotive (the first car?) he built and ran in 1801 - Trevithick's fame and fortune should have been assured.

Success, however, depends on how you measure it. To Trevithick, the Penydarren was a success, completing the nine-mile journey, and reaching speeds of nearly five miles per hour as it did so. To Homfray, however, the Penydarren's tendency to break the track it ran on, was of more concern. As reported by Rees Jones, an assistant to Trevithick "She worked very well; but frequently her weight broke the tram-plates. On the third journey she broke a great many of the tram-plates. She was brought back to Penydarren by horses"(2). Deciding that the locomotive would probably not reduce his transportation costs, Homfray abandoned the project. After this forlorn third journey, the Penydarren was never again used as a locomotive.

In the same year, Trevithick built a locomotive for the owner of Wylam colliery in Northumberland: it too turned out to be too heavy, at five tons, for the track (on this occasion, constructed from wood) it was to run on.

Trevithick was clearly not the sort to be put off by a few unfortunate early failures, and in 1808 he reappeared with a new locomotive, this time in London. In the true spirit of the era, he named it "Catch me who can", and it drew the crowds to Euston Square, where for a shilling a ride, you could be taken round the locomotive's circular track, at speeds of 12 miles per hour, provided, that is, you were lucky enough to get there before, once again - and I think we can see where this is going - the rails broke. Unfortunately for Trevithick, technical advances in track construction were not keeping pace with his inventions.

As you might expect, Trevithick began to find it hard to secure financial backing for his steam locomotive ventures. He developed, instead, a steam dredger to lift waste from the bottom of the Thames, and received sixpence for every ton lifted. The dredger worked (no rails to break - easy), but as there was little money to be had in shovelling shit, even then, Trevithick moved to Peru to take a job as an engineer in a silver mine.

For a time, he was incredibly successful, even making enough profit from his steam engines to buy his own mines, but proving once and for all that fortune favours the lucky, he was forced to leave the country, and his considerable assets, when war broke out. In time, Trevithick found himself in Columbia, where he met Robert Stephenson, the son of George Stephenson, but more importantly a kind man who lent him his fare back home to England.

Trevithick tinkered about in poverty for another six years, adding to his already impressive list of patents. Sadly, he remained penniless to his death, having been refused a government pension, despite the intervention of Robert Stephenson on his behalf.

Pushed to the sidelines by the undoubted commercial successes of Robert and George Stephenson, only recently has Trevithick's true worth been recognised. He pretty much invented the high-pressure steam engine (1800), built the first steam-driven passenger-carrier (1801), built the first railway locomotive (1804) - and in the process demonstrated that smooth wheels can run on smooth rails - created rock boring machines (1810), and patented ideas ranging from mechanical refrigeration to land reclamation and tunnelling under the Thames. In short, "the significance of the Trevithick machine to World development of transport and industrialisation was thus enormous."(3)

(1) He was, however, particularly tall, at 6 feet 2 inches, and particularly strong. Aged eighteen, he was able to write his name on a beam six feet from the floor while hanging about 25Kg from his thumb. He was also reckoned to be a pretty good wrestler.

(2) In Mining Journal, 1858

(3) Ian Johnson, The Stephenson Locomotive Society. 1998

  • A book about trains for children that I read about a thousand times over when I was very young. It mentioned Trevithick's locomotives, and also their track-breaking problems.