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George Stephenson: The Illiterate Son's Rise to Railroad Prominence

George Stephenson: The Illiterate Son's Rise to Railroad Prominence
photo: Wikimedia Commons/George Stephenson: The Illiterate Son's Rise to Railroad Prominence
16 / 10 / 2023

Have you ever heard of the story of an illiterate boy who grew up in the poverty of industrial England and became the father of the railway? A boy who started from scratch and grew to become one of the most renowned railroad engineers in history. The man behind the rapid development of the railway, yet one who never forgot his roots?

Complex Youth

The year was 1781, in the small English village of Wylam, 21 kilometers from Newcastle. Here, the illiterate miner Robert Stephenson and his wife Mabel welcomed their second child among six, a son named George. Young George grew up in circumstances that did not afford him an education.

England was then in the midst of the industrial revolution, and the emerging capitalism was brutal to the poor working class. They faced sixteen-hour workdays, meager wages, no health insurance, and no vacations. This was the reality of a monarchy undergoing one of the most significant revolutions in human history.

From an early age, George had to work. He began by looking after cows, then assisted his father with stoking, before fully immersing himself in the job. He developed a fascination for steam engines. By 17, he became a machinist and also began attending evening school where he learned to read, write, and do arithmetic.

In 1802, he married Frances Henderson and relocated to Newcastle. A year later, they had a son, Robert, who would play a pivotal role in our story. Two years after that, a daughter, also named Frances, was born to the couple. However, happiness was short-lived for George, who faced a series of tragedies. Little Frances passed away just three weeks after her birth. In 1806, George's wife Frances succumbed to the then-incurable tuberculosis. Devastated, George left his son Robert in school in Newcastle and departed England for Scotland, seeking work and further knowledge on steam engines. A few months later, another tragedy struck: an accident in the mine where George's father worked left the older man blind. George returned home to care for him, with his unmarried sister Eleanor moving in to help raise young Robert.

The Road to Glory is Open

Luck finally favored Stephenson in 1811 when he was tasked with repairing a broken mine pump. His solution was so effective that he was promoted to chief engineer at the mine, and simultaneously, his reputation in steam propulsion grew. Recognized for his skills, George embarked on a project that had long captivated him. In 1804, British inventor Richard Trevithick introduced a steam locomotive, a concept that enthralled George. By 1814, George designed his first true steam locomotive, capable of hauling up to 30 tons of coal at speeds of 4 miles (6.44 kilometers) per hour. He named it Blücher, and his fame increased.

Wikimedia Commons

In 1820, George married his second wife, Elizabeth Hindmarsh. Around the same time, he was tasked with constructing the first railroad that did not rely on animal power. Despite the track being only 13 kilometers long and primarily used for coal transport, it was a groundbreaking success. Many had doubted the project, but its triumphant completion saw Stephenson's prominence rise further.

While he designed more locomotives, he sent his son Robert to Edinburgh University to study engineering. Robert frequently shared his notes with George, who studied them avidly, further expanding his expertise. Their bond strengthened, and by 1823 they jointly established a steam locomotive manufacturing firm in Newcastle.

A Decisive Entry in History

Yet, George's most significant triumph in locomotive design was still to come. In 1829, he and Robert were working on a locomotive for their proposed Liverpool-Manchester line. They named it Rocket. Though the construction of this line faced opposition and delays, the Rocket's moment of glory was at hand.

Wikimedia, Stanmar

A locomotive competition in Rainhill saw the Rocket outpace four other entrants, reaching speeds of over 40 kilometers per hour. It was a defining moment: Rocket became a symbol of British pride, and George earned the title "father of the railway."

George designed railways in Britain and across Europe for the remainder of his life. Although he remarried twice following Elizabeth's death in 1845, he did not have more children. He married Ellen Gregory three years after Elizabeth's passing but lived only seven more months, dying at 67. His legacy was carried forward by his son Robert, who had already made significant contributions alongside his father.

And so concludes the tale of a man who, despite his humble beginnings, became instrumental in railway development. He always remembered his roots and consistently offered financial assistance to workers and their families in times of need.