Trevithick, Richard (1771–1833)

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The father of high pressure steam power was born at the village of Illogan in Cornwall, England, on April 13, 1771, the only boy after five older sisters. His father, also Richard, was a mine "captain," as mine managers were called. In 1760 Richard, Sr., had married Anne Teague of Redruth. Her family included several more mine captains.

While the village schoolmaster thought the younger Richard disobedient, slow, obstinate and spoiled, the positive sides of these qualities emerged in independent thought, technical planning, persistence, and the loyalty of his workers and friends. His uninspiring record as a student and lack of formal training in engineering mattered less as he began work in the mines. There his talent and interest in engineering gainied early notice. First employed as a mine engineer in 1790 at age nineteen, he was being called on as a consultant by 1792.

The steam-power systems in Trevithick's youth were massive but lightly loaded low-pressure engines. This technology was controlled by Boulton & Watt, whose business acumen had extended patents far beyond their normal expiration dates. The royalties typically took one-third of the savings in fuel over the Newcomen atmospheric engine. Another necessary evil was the expense of fuel, as coal was not locally mined. Cornish engineers worked incessantly to design and invent their way past these limitations.

Working around the Watt patents, he ensured safety while progressively raising the pressure of his systems to ten times atmospheric pressure, avoiding Watt's condenser altogether. This threat to the income of Boulton & Watt was met with a court injunction to stop the construction and operation of Trevithick's systems. Boulton & Watt had ruined other competitors, and their alarmist views of high pressure steam were largely due to lack of patent control in that emerging technology.

In 1797, Trevithick married Jane Harvey, lost his father, Richard, Sr., and made his first working models of high pressure engines. His wife was of the established engineering and foundry family of Hayle.

Trevithick's high-pressure engine models, including one with powered wheels, were the seeds for a line of improvements to steam engines and vehicles by many developers through the following decades. These departed from the preceding vehicle concepts and constructs of Murdock or Cugnot. These "puffer" engines made better use of the expansive properties of steam since they worked over a wider pressure differential. Using no condenser, Trevithick directed the exhaust up the chimney, inducing draft to increase the firing rate proportional to engine load, avoiding Watt's patents.

The first successful steam road vehicle was demonstrated climbing a hill in Camborne, Cornwall, on Christmas Eve, 1801. A new carriage, fitted with a proper coach body, was demonstrated in London in 1803. Eventually, a backer appeared with confidence and purchased a share in the developments. Samuel Homfray had Trevithick construct the first successful railway locomotive for his Penydarren Ironworks in South Wales. It was first run on February 13, 1804. Eight days later it won Homfray a wager of five hundred guineas. Homfray's existing cast-iron, horse-drawn rails were not yet suitable for continuous use. A similar locomotive was built at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1805 to Trevithick's design. Again, the wooden rails were too light for the service. Trevithick's final showing of his locomotive concept was on a circular track at Gower Street in London where "Catch-me-who-can" gave rides for a shilling, but did not attract investment. Future developers would found an industry on Trevithick's technical generosity.

Trevithick's engineering reputation was established by the thirty high-pressure engines he built for winding, pumping and iron-rolling in Cornwall, Wales and Shropshire. His patent work and correspondence with members of the Royal Society might have brought him wider notice, but he was on a technical collision course with Watt and the engineering establishment, and conservative investors stayed away. Trevithick was left to financial alliances with indecisive or unscrupulous businessmen. While a near-fatal bout of typhus in 1811 kept him from work for months, his partner Richard Dickinson led him into bankruptcy in 1811.

Trevithick's high-pressure steam engines attracted attention, but his mechanical improvements enabling the boiler to withstand ten atmospheres of pressure were even more significant to power plant economy and practicality. He doubled the boiler efficiency. His wrought-iron boiler fired through an internal flue, the "Cornish" boiler became known worldwide. He applied the high-pressure engine to an iron-rolling mill (1805), a self-propelled barge using paddle-wheels (1805), a steam dredge (1806) and to powering a threshing machine (1812).

Some of Trevithick's other novel accomplishments and inventions include steam quarry drilling, applications for his superior iron tank construction, a "recoil engine" like Hero's Aeolipile, mining engines and mills in Peru, a one-piece cast-brass carbine for Bolivar's army, ship-raising by flotation, being the first European to cross the Isthmus of Nicaragua (from necessity), recoil-actuated gun-loading, iron ships, hydraulic dockside cranes, methods to drain Holland's lowlands, mechanical refrigeration, water-jet-propelled ships, and a portable heat storage heater.

Throughout his lifetime, Trevithick continued to measure his personal success in terms of his technical success in maintaining the fine balance of economy, utility and safety. At the end of his life he wrote, "I have been branded with folly and madness for attempting what the world calls impossibilities, and even from the great engineer, the late Mr. James Watt, who said...I deserved hanging for bringing into use the high-pressure engine. This so far has been my reward from the public; but should this be all, I shall be satisfied by the great secret pleasure and laudable pride that I feel in my own breast from having been the instrument of bringing forward and maturing new principles and new arrangements of boundless value to my country. . . . the great honour . . . far exceeds riches."

After becoming ill during a consulting stint at Dartford, Kent, England, Trevithick died, April 22, 1833, and was buried in a pauper's grave.

Continual disappointment in his business affairs kept him in relative obscurity even as his developments were reshaping the industrial world. Today, even the engineering community rarely notes his successes as the inventor of the first self-propelled road carriage we could call an automobile, and the railway locomotive.

Karl A. Petersen

See also: Watt, James.


Boulton, I. W. Marginal notes, Science Museum copy of: Fletcher, William (1891). Steam on Common Roads.

Hodge, J. (1973). Richard Trevithick: An Illustrated Life of Richard Trevithick. Aylesbury: Shire Publications Ltd.

Rolt, L. T. C. (1960). The Cornish Giant, The Story of Richard Trevithick, Father of the Steam Locomotive. London: Lutterworth Press.

Trevithick, F. C. E. (1872). Life of Richard Trevithick, with an Account of His Inventions. London: E. & F.N. Spon.

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Trevithick, Richard (1771–1833)

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