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Railway Giants: Jules T. Anatole Mallet, The Ingenious Mind Behind the World's Largest Steam Locomotive

Railway Giants: Jules T. Anatole Mallet, The Ingenious Mind Behind the World's Largest Steam Locomotive
photo: Riad Salih / Wikimedia commons/Anatole Mallet
22 / 01 / 2024

In a new part of the series tracing the fate of railway giants, we look at the fate of the creator of the legendary "Mallet," which almost everyone has heard of. But who knows the story of its author, Jules Theodor Anatole Mallet?

It is May 1837 and we are in the Swiss town of Carouge, where Jules Theodore Anatole Mallet is born. However, this town, located on the border between Switzerland and France, has not been part of the land of the Helvetic Cross for very long. The opportunity to break free of France's grip for good only came less than 20 years ago, after France was finally defeated in the Napoleonic Wars. The whole region took advantage of this, for who would want to live in a country that has been plagued for nearly 30 years by bloody revolutions, wars, and the misery that ensues when they can live in a newly born liberal state called Switzerland?

Conditions in the young republic are far from optimal. Geographical conditions make life difficult for the inhabitants, with most villages separated by a mountain range that is difficult to penetrate. Industry is growing in the cities, but the various regions are still at loggerheads with each other over the leadership of the state. This problem is not resolved until 1848, when a reconciliation agreement is reached, a new constitution is drawn up and the state system is changed to a federation. The constitution still does not guarantee equal civil and political rights (note: men did not get political equality until 1874 and women did not until 1971).

Young Jules grows up in these conditions. At school, he shows himself to be bright and clever. He goes to university in Paris to study at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures. After his studies, he will go to sea, or rather to a port equipment factory, where he will gain his first practical experience as a designer. He will also be designing these facilities for the new Suez Canal.

The steam engine is still a hot new thing in the engineering field, even though it was invented in the last century. Engineers from all countries are constantly trying to improve it. This machine, which is gradually supplanting the horse as the main motive power, also appeals to Jules. The year is 1867 and Jules, in the course of his research into the steam engine, discovers a groundbreaking innovation: the application of a combined steam engine to a locomotive.

Žel Page / Public domain

The combined steam engine differs from the classical one in that it involves the multiple expansion of steam in separate cylinders. This increases its efficiency to 15-25% (NB: a conventional steam engine has an efficiency of around 10%), but at the cost of increasing the complexity of the machine. The combined steam engine was patented more than 60 years ago by the English engineer Arthur Woolf, but it was Jules who first used it on a locomotive. He would also receive a patent for it in 1874. Shortly afterwards, Jules would also patent a device that would allow fresh steam to be introduced into the low-pressure cylinder, allowing the locomotive to start even when the high-pressure piston was at its extreme point.

However, it was not until 1876 that Jules made a significant impact on the world, when two two-cylinder tender locomotives converted to his design were deployed on the line connecting the French cities of Bayonne and Biarritz. The locomotives look very good at first glance, they are flashy and show interesting performance. But an unexpected problem arises. At higher speeds, the locomotives exhibit uneven running, which is caused by the uneven distribution of power between the two cylinders. In future practice, Jules will focus on eliminating this problem.

Jules presented his first custom locomotive in 1888 in Belgium. It is first seen by the public a year later at an exhibition in Paris. The locomotive makes use of both of Jules' patents, the combined steam engine with its respective wheelsets is built into the frame of the locomotive, while the low-pressure cylinders are housed in a separate chassis. This concept reaps success, and so it was only a logical outcome when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad introduced it in the far-flung United States in 1904. By 1911, 500 "mallets" would be in service. This concept would be used in the 1940s for perhaps the world's largest steam locomotive, the Big Boy. However, with the passage of time, the classic "mallets" would be partially abandoned, as steam engines would no longer be coupled in newer designs (note: this is also the case with the U 47.001 or the 636.0 locomotives operated by the Czechoslovakian State Railroad).

Unknown Military photographer / Wikimedia commons

However, the now experienced and well-known designer Jules Anatole Mallet is not involved in the further development of the "Mallets," although he continues to willingly lend them his name. He gradually retires. Not surprisingly, when he was awarded the Elliott Cresson Medal by the Franklin Institute in 1908, he was already 71 years old. He spends the rest of his life in seclusion, and when he breathes his last in Paris in 1919, the locomotive "Mallet" is more familiar to most of the professional community than the name of its author.

Thus ends the story of a man who, by placing a combined steam engine on a locomotive, took a step many never even considered. "Malletka," however, figuratively speaking, decided to act like an ambitious daughter, and so she stood her ground. She took from her father's care only what she herself saw fit to subsequently run away from him, appropriating his legacy but retaining his name as a pure expression of gratitude.