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Railway Giants: Inventor of the First Steam Locomotive Ends Up Forgotten in a Mass Grave

Railway Giants: Inventor of the First Steam Locomotive Ends Up Forgotten in a Mass Grave
photo: John Linnell / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA/Railway Giants: Inventor of the First Steam Locomotive Ends Up Forgotten in a Mass Grave
28 / 10 / 2023

Do you know who was behind the creation of the first moving steam locomotive? The tale of its inventor, Richard Trevithick, is laden with unexpected twists and turns. The destiny of the man who inaugurated the modern railway era stands as one of the most poignant chapters in technological history.

From a Childhood Fascination

As our story begins, we're on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution in 1771. In the town of Tregajorran, located in the English county of Cornwall, a young boy named Richard is born to miner Richard Trevithick.

Growing up in a rapidly evolving industrial setting undoubtedly shapes Richard's future. Living next door to the renowned inventor, William Murdoch, likely influences him significantly. However, in his school years, Richard doesn't particularly stand out, often being described as average and easily distracted. He's more passionate about sports than studies. The notable exception is arithmetic, where he excels, sometimes using unconventional yet accurate methods.

By 19, Richard starts working in the mine where his father is employed. He quickly climbs the professional ladder and is well-liked by his peers, partly due to his father's respected reputation. In 1797, he marries Jane Harvey, and together, they raise six children.

Hugh Llewelyn / Wikimedia Commons / SS BY-SA

The High-Pressure Pursuit

As the new century dawns, Trevithick delves deeper into experimenting with high-pressure steam engines. He initially works on a stationary version before adapting it for a road vehicle. By 1801, he designs his first functional steam-powered car, christened the "Puffing Devil." On Christmas Day of the same year, he conducts a successful test. But steam engine technology is still nascent, so it's hardly a shock when the vehicle malfunctions during another test three days later. A year afterwards, he secures a patent for his high-pressure steam engine.

By 1803, Trevithick tries again, unveiling a road vehicle named the "London Steam Carriage." Though it garners public interest, the production costs, which overshadow the expenses of horse-driven carriages, lead him to abandon the project.

That same year, a catastrophe occurs in Greenwich: one of Trevithick's high-pressure pumps explodes, causing the deaths of four workers. This event imperils Richard's reputation and raises concerns over the safety of high-pressure steam engines. Firm in his belief that operator error was the culprit, the 32-year-old engineer begins incorporating safety valves into new steam engines.

Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

The Dawn of a New Transport Era

Richard's crowning achievement materializes in 1804. That February, his steam locomotive, named "Pen-y-Darren" after the forge where it was constructed, embarks on a sixteen-kilometer journey between the Welsh towns of Pen-y-darren and Abercynon. Over a span of 4 hours and 5 minutes, five wagons transport 10 tons of iron and 70 men, including a government inspector keen on assessing the safety of the high-pressure steam engine. Even though the average speed barely surpasses a walking pace, it signifies the commencement of a revolutionary era in transportation. The embryonic version of today's locomotives had been created. While railways had a long, challenging journey ahead, the inaugural step had been confidently taken.

Yet, back in 1804, Christopher Blackett, a coal mine proprietor in Wylam, learns of Richard's triumph in Wales and proposes a collaboration. The plan is for Trevithick to design a locomotive tailored for the mine's requirements. But the venture is stymied when Blackett's wooden rails prove too frail for Trevithick's hefty locomotive.

In 1808, Richard crafts his final major locomotive. Leveraging his expertise, he establishes "Catch Me Who Can," a locomotive, and showcases it as a tourist attraction in London. His ambition is to demonstrate steam's potential to outpace horses. However, public interest wanes, leading a disheartened Richard to abandon further locomotive production.

Tim Green  / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA

Bidding Adieu to Locomotives

That same year, Trevithick collaborates with West Indian merchant Robert Dickinson. They agree that Dickinson will finance Trevithick's patents. Initially, the partnership seems promising, with Richard producing a flurry of patents. But fate has other plans.

In 1810, Trevithick contracts typhus, coming perilously close to death before making a near-miraculous recovery. His relentless work ethic strains their partnership to the point of bankruptcy. It isn't until 1814 that Trevithick manages to settle most of the debts from his own savings.

By 1816, the 40-year-old Trevithick ventures to Peru in Latin America, contracted to use his high-pressure steam engine to aid in draining water from mines. Conflicts with his superior prompt him to leave the post prematurely, but he remains in Latin America, primarily working as a mining consultant. He only returns to England in 1827. In his twilight years, he settles in Dartford, dedicating himself to engineering new engines for ships.

Hugh Llewelyn / Wikimedia Commons / SS BY-SA

Tragically, Richard's final chapter is steeped in sorrow. Even as railways eclipse horse transport in England, just as Trevithick had foreseen, he plays no further part in this evolution. In 1833, the visionary inventor, devoid of resources and loved ones, succumbs to pneumonia in Dartford. He is interred in an unmarked mass grave, his monumental contributions momentarily forgotten.

Such is the tale of the visionary who foresaw the railway explosion. While he dreamt of pioneering this revolution, its realization, just a few years later, would be credited to others. Paradoxically, his early innovations with steam locomotives might have been his greatest setback