A stationary steam engine is believed to have been invented by James Watt, who in 1763 improved the atmospheric steam engine built previously by Thomas Newcomen. This was the general starting point. The birth of the steam locomotive was difficult and entailed many dramatic events.
As steam engines became better and better some visionaries began thinking about the possibilities of using them as vehicle drive. The direct predecessor of the steam locomotive was the structure built by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769. The French officer was awarded a contract to deliver an artillery tractor by the French Ministry of War. Inspired by the steam engine which at that time was used in mines and factories, continuously developed by James Watt, he wished to build a steam-powered vehicle similar to the structure described as early as in 1663 by the English physician, astronomer and mathematician, Isaac Newton.
In 1769 the ordering authorities were presented with a vehicle with three wheels and a huge boiler. Water, heated up in the boiler, made the machine move for about 10 minutes. After this time, water had to be heated again to move it further. Encouraged by this achievement, Cugnot added fire under the boiler which extended the vehicle's travel enabling it to move with a stunning speed of 2.5 mph (4 km/h). However, it was poorly steerable, which resulted in an incident. During the show organised for high rank military personnel the invention went out of control and made for the observers, causing general panic and terror, and finally hit a wall. After this accident works were not continued any more as Cugnot's vehicle was regarded too dangerous. The concept of steam-powered vehicles was not undertaken for a longer period of time.
James Watt and engineer William Murdoch also examined the possibility of using a low-pressure steam engine as a vehicle drive. Murdoch, who in 1786 in the village of Redruth in England tested his invention equipped with a boiler heated by a spirit lamp, also had to face difficulties. He heated the boiler in the carriage standing in the middle of the street but did not have time to get on. The steam carriage running without a driver scared the local pastor who suffered such a shock that he died shortly afterwards.
Soon, Murdoch employed a talented worker, Richard Trevithick, who claimed that low pressure in the boiler was not sufficient to drive a vehicle and that it should be sealed well to increase the pressure up to approximately 3 atm. Trevithick's trial on Christmas Eve of 1801 was not successful. The steam carriage, in which he travelled together with his friends, tripped over and fell into a ditch. Nobody was hurt. The machine was also damaged but the distressed participants changed their plans and spent the rest of the evening in an inn over a boozy dinner. The steam carriage, left in a shed, burnt down.
In 1803 in London, Trevithick built another machine. It moved efficiently in the streets at 7.5 mph (12 km/h). Because it scared away horses and frightened passengers, it was boycotted by Londoners and the press.
Attempts to build steam locomotives and put them into use did not result from the accomplishment of the fantastic ideas of the 18th and 19th century designers. It was the development of industry and trade which increased the requirement of new means of transport. As early as the 18th century more and more bridges were constructed, while roads were hardened and widened. The improved transport network gradually made industrial plants independent of water routes. The development of factories was conducive to the emergence of large transport companies. At that time, one such company in London had 3 thousand horse-drawn carriages and 30 thousand employees. In France transport companies carried more than 700 thousand people in 1840.
The problem for the first steam locomotives was their insufficient adhesion weight, bad condition of rails and the superstructure, and people not understanding this thought that natural friction was not enough and it should be increased by artificial methods. The idea of reducing the weight of the locomotive was developed by adding an extra, corrugated rail to drive the machine. The man behind this idea in 1811 was John Blenkinsop. Another, even braver, concept assumed the installation of special mechanical legs, imitating a walking animal, to put the locomotive into proper motion. Such a vehicle was constructed in 1813 by William Brunton.
However, none of those solutions was successful. Thus, the previously abandoned concept of making use of the natural grip between the wheel and the rail was resumed. Above all, this was a contribution by William Hedley, whose experiments demonstrated that the condition for the movement of vehicles on smooth rails is sufficiently strong pressure on the driving wheels. And so in 1813 the first functional adhesion steam locomotive of his design, called “Puffing Billy”, was built and it remained in use until 1862.
Regardless of Hedley, George Stephenson – an enginewright for the collieries at Killingworth – took interest in steam locomotives. He managed to persuade the management board of the company to commence trials with a locomotive of his own design. Having obtained permission, in 1814 he built a two-axle adhesion steam locomotive with a wheel diameter of 914 mm. He used a steam engine identical to that used in Hedley's locomotive. But due to poor thermal characteristics (insufficient heating surface, a single fire tube, insufficient funnel draught – and an excessive diameter of the funnel: 510 mm) satisfactory results were not achieved.
But Stephenson was not discouraged. Spurred on by Hedley's results, in 1815 he built a new steam locomotive in which the wheels were joined initially by means of rigid connectors and later by means of a chain in order to increase the adhesion tractive force. In his next locomotive, built in 1816, Stephenson introduced springs in the locomotive to avoid the use of a gear drive. This lifted off the hazardous impact of uneven tracks and enabled even distribution of wheel load.
Nearly every year until 1829 new types of steam locomotives were built which did not differ from the previous models in terms of values. Attempts to improve the thermal characteristics of the locomotive boiler proved pointless as it was impossible to ensure the appropriate heatable surface by means of a single fire tube. Moreover, as a result of imperfection of the mechanical parts, maintaining a steam locomotive in motion required continuing costly repairs. Also, the condition of rails had a disastrous effect on railway operation. The rails were made of short, cast bars of iron. The tracks, not suitable for heavy vehicles, kept on cracking, thus increasing traffic maintenance costs. In addition, the disproportionately high number of contact points increased rolling friction and, due to dynamic stress, impaired vehicles' chassis that were imperfect anyway.
But despite great obstacles and lack of interest, interest in the railway industry was still growing. 1820 was a turning point that brought a ground-breaking invention to humanity. At that time, John Birkinshaw, an engineer at the ironworks in Durham, put rolling wrought-iron rails into use. They were much longer than the previously used cast-iron rails. Stephenson found them useful in 1822 during the construction of the first large railway line between Stockton and Darlington, designed mainly for the needs of transporting coal from the local coal basin to the harbours in the north of England.
George Stephenson was a lucky man. With regard to high costs of transport of coal from the coal basin in Durham to Stockton-on-Tees, owners of local collieries were threatened with bankruptcy. Therefore, in 1821 they established a society for the construction of a horse-drawn railway to Stockton. Stephenson was appointed the person in charge whose task was also to use steam locomotives apart from horse traction. To ensure supplies for the new line, in 1824 Stephenson built the world's first steam locomotive factory in Newcastle.
Another turning point was September 1825, when Stephenson completed the first steam locomotive for the new railway line. Originally he called it “Active” (enlivened by energy), but later renamed it “Locomotion”.
On 27 September 1825 the opening of a 12-mile-long (19 km) railway line from Stockton to Darlington was celebrated. The date is considered the symbolic date of the birth of the railway. Then, the first passenger car called “Experiment” was attached and carried dignitaries invited for the opening journey. Driven by Stephenson, “Locomotion”, hauled an 80-ton load of coal and flour in 65 minutes, reaching a speed of 24 mph (39 km/h) at one of the sections.
In the course of construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, Stephenson noticed that even small elevations considerably reduced the speed of a steam locomotive, and slight slopes made primitive brakes useless. Thus, he came up with a conclusion that tracks should be laid on the flattest possible plane. He made use of this knowledge while working on the Bolton and Leigh Railway. To level the route of the train, he ordered a series of difficult cuts, embankments and stone viaducts.
Stephenson's success made the businessmen build a similar line from Manchester to Liverpool. In the first of these cities the textile and mining industry was successfully developing and the daily turnover of goods with the seaport in Liverpool exceeded 1,000 tons. Meanwhile, goods were transported in a traditional manner and, for example, it was faster to transport cotton from overseas than to carry it from Liverpool to the 35-mile (56 km) away Manchester.
Having heard about the railway construction project, owners of transport companies making use of the horse and river power unleashed a wide-scale anti-railway campaign involving the press. The matter was the subject of vigorous arguments in the English parliament. Numerous, quite absurd rumours were propagated, including rumours that the puffing and smoking vehicle would scare farm animals (the cows would stop giving milk and the hens would not lay eggs), kill forest animals, increase the number of miscarriages in women, smoke would obscure the sky making day a dark night, pose a risk of fire to houses and forestland, and if a steam locomotive was derailed, the boiler would explode killing thousands of people and sweeping the local buildings off the ground.
Therefore, when in 1826 Parliament was making great efforts to approve the project of the construction of the Manchester-Liverpool Railway Line, the inhabitants of the territory through which the prospective route was to pass went into panic. There were even instances of dangerous riots and sometimes railway construction workers had to flee evading the inhabitants attacking them.
In the face of numerous doubts a competition to build the best locomotives to run on the new line was announced. Practical trials were organised in Rainhill on a special 1.7 mile (2.8 km) long track. Every locomotive was supposed to run ten times in front of the audience. Technical assessment was performed and time records were kept by a committee consisting of: John Kennedy, John Rastrick and Nicholas Wood – at that time notable railway experts. Members of the committee were to select the winner entitled to a prize of 500 sterlings. But the prize was not the most important thing to the participants of the competition. The winner would be given a contract for the production and supply of locomotives for the new railway line under construction.
The engines taking part in the Rainhill Trials had to satisfy the following requirements for entry:
• they had to produce steam on their own;
• they weighed less than 6.1 tons;
• the pressure in the boiler could not exceed 3.5 atm;
• they pulled a 20-ton train set over a specified distance, doing at least 10 mph (16
• they had maximum 6 wheels;
• their funnel was not taller than 4.5 metres;
• the cost of construction of the steam locomotive could not exceed 50 sterlings.
The rules of the competition at Rainhill were also described in detail:
The weight of the Locomotive Engine, with its full complement of water in the boiler, shall be ascertained at the Weighing Machine, by eight o'clock in the morning, and the load assigned to it shall be three times the weight thereof. The water in the boiler shall be cold, and there shall be no fuel in the fireplace. As much fuel shall be weighed, and as much water shall be measured and delivered into the Tender Carriage, as the owner of the Engine may consider sufficient for the supply of the Engine for a journey of 35 miles (56 km). The fire in the boiler shall then be lighted, and the quantity of fuel consumed for getting up the steam shall be determined, and the time noted.
The Tender Carriage, with the fuel and water, shall be considered to be, and taken as a part of the load assigned to the Engine.
Those engines which carry their own fuel and water, shall be allowed a proportionate deduction from their load, according to the weight of the Engine.
The Engine, with the carriages attached to it, shall be run by hand up to the Starting Post, and as soon as the steam is got up to fifty pounds per square inch (345 kPa), the engine shall set out upon its journey.
The distance the Engine shall perform each trip shall be one mile and three quarters (2.8 km) each way, including one-eighth of a mile (200 m) at each end for getting up the speed and for stopping the train; by this means the Engine, with its load, will travel one and a-half mile (2.4 km) each way at full speed.
The Engines shall make ten trips, which will be equal to a journey of thirty five miles (56 km); thirty miles whereof shall be performed at full speed, and the average rate of travelling shall not be less than ten miles per hour (16 km/h).
As soon as the Engine has performed this task, which will be equal to the travelling from Liverpool to Manchester, there shall be a fresh supply of fuel and water delivered to her; and, as soon as she can be got ready to set out again, she shall go up to the Starting Post, and make ten trips more, which will be equal to the journey from Manchester back again to Liverpool.
The time of performing every trip shall be accurately noted, as well as the time occupied in getting ready to set out on the second journey.
Should the engine not be enabled to take along with it sufficient fuel and water for the journey of ten trips, the time occupied in taking in a fresh supply of fuel and water, shall be considered and taken as a part of the time in performing the journey.
Finally, on the day of the competition, that is, 6 October 1829, five locomotives were entered:
• “The Cycloped” built by Thomas Shaw Brandreth;
• “The Sans Pareil” built by Timothy Hackworth;
• “The Novelty” built by John Braithwaite and John Ericsson;
• “The Rocket” designed by George Stephenson;
• “Perseverance” built by Timothy Burstall.
Two locomotives dropped out of the competition disqualified by the jury at entry. It turned out that inside the three-ton “Cycloped” there was a horse walking on a drive belt for power! In turn, the “Perseverance” burnt too much coal and did not meet the criteria of the competition (the designer was paid 25 sterlings as a consolation prize).
The “Sans Pareil” almost completed the trials although there were some doubts whether it could be entered in the competition as it was 300 pounds (136 kg) overweight. However, it did eventually complete eight trips before cracking a cylinder. After such serious damage, the designer did not manage to start the engine in a short time. Despite this failure, Hackworth's locomotive was purchased by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway where it served for 2 years before being leased to the Bolton and Leigh Railway.
The last drop-out from the competition was the “Novelty” which was too cutting-edge in 1829, lighter and considerably faster than the other locomotives in the competition. Without any doubt, it was the crowd's favourite. Unfortunately, having reached a then-astonishing speed of 28 mph (45 km/h) on the first day of the competition, it later suffered some damage to a boiler pipe which could not be properly fixed on site within the time allotted.
The “Novelty” continued the runs on the following day but it reached 15 mph (24 km/h) only. It broke down again and was withdrawn from the competition.
The only locomotive to overcome all adversities was the “Rocket”. Stephenson attached a carriage with 30 passengers and completed the route reaching a top speed of 28 mph (45 km/h). The competitors of the “Rocket” failed during each trial. Stephenson received a prize of 500 sterlings and was awarded a contract for the production of locomotives for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
George Stephenson, and later his son Robert, both had a sixth sense and unique skills in introducing innovations. Most technical innovations in the “Rocket” were only adaptations. The use of a multiple fire-tube boiler with the furnace surrounded by water, which enabled the “Rocket” to win the Rainhill Trials, can be quoted as an example. This ground-breaking invention was patented in February 1828 by Marc Séguin in France. Independently, in the United Kingdom, such a boiler was designed by Henry Booth, the Secretary of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company.
The Stephensons satisfied all the criteria for success: they had the necessary expertise, skills and talents of mechanic, engineer, merchant and manager, their own funds and factory and an intuition for technical progress, but most importantly, they were characterized by perseverance which Trevithick regrettably lacked.