Born June 9, 1781
Died August 12, 1848
British engineer, inventor
"I put up with every rebuff, and went on with my plans, determined not to be put down."
George Stephenson was a largely self-taught engineer who developed the steam blast locomotive, or railroad engine. Stephenson became the leading manufacturer of railroads and locomotives in England at the height of the Industrial Revolution, a period of fast-paced economic change that began in Great Britain in the middle of the eighteenth century. The Industrial Revolution resulted in many changes in societies where it took place, especially England. One of those changes was to open new prospects for success and wealth to people born into modest circumstances.
Such was the case with Stephenson, whose father worked in a coal mine and who himself spent his childhood working to earn money for his family. By the time Stephenson died, however, at age sixty-seven, he had achieved wealth and fame as the foremost manufacturer of locomotives and entire railroads in England. He did this not by accident of birth, that is, by inheriting wealth and position, but by dint of his abilities as an engineer.
Childhood and youth
George Stephenson was born on June 9, 1781, in the small town of Wylam, near Newcastle-on-Tyne, in England. His family's cottage was located next to the Wylam wagonway, a set of wooden tracks that carried wagons loaded with coal from the nearby mine to the Tyne River. The wooden wagonway came before the iron (and later, steel) railroad tracks that were needed to bear the weight of locomotives.
Coal miners in the late eighteenth century were paid barely enough to live on, and their children usually had to take small jobs to help the family pay its bills. George's first job as a boy of eight was herding cows and driving horses for the coal mine's "gin," a machine used to move weights. When he was fourteen, George got a job in the mine, working alongside his father as an assistant fireman. Within a year, George had become a fireman, and two years later was promoted to the job of "plug man," the person responsible for keeping mine ore moving through the chutes that moved coal from one level to another.
After working in the coal mine during the day, George attended school at night to learn how to read and write. A man of enormous energy, he also occasionally mended boots for extra money.
In 1802 Stephenson married Frances Henderson, who worked as a servant on a nearby farm. The following year they had a son, whom they named Robert, after his grandfather. Stephenson and his son Robert had an extraordinary lifetime partnership, begun perhaps when Frances died of tuberculosis in 1806 while Robert was still a toddler. Tuberculosis, a lung disease caused by a bacterium, is easily communicable and was commonplace in the era before antibiotics.
A fascination with locomotives
Even as a boy, Stephenson had been fascinated by the machines that ran along the wagonway next to his house. His work around steam engines in the coal mines increased his fascination with all things mechanical.
Stephenson was also determined to improve his education. When his son came of age, his father sent him to school in Newcastle, England. At night, father and son worked together on the boy's homework, and in this way Stephenson learned mathematics, which he would put to use a few years later as he began designing locomotives.
Years later, according to author Frederick S. Williams in Our Iron Roads, Stephenson recalled in a speech at the opening of the Newcastle and Darlington Railway in 1844:
When he [Robert] was a little boy, I saw how deficient I was in education, and made up my mind that he should not labor under the same defect, but that I would put him to a good school, and give him a liberal training. I was, however, a poor man; and how do you think I managed. I betook myself to mending my neighbors' clocks and watches at night, after my daily labor was done; and thus I procured the means of educating my son. He became my assistant and my companion.… At night we worked together at our engineering.
At age twenty-seven, Stephenson got a job as engine-man at the Killingworth coal mine. One of the dangers that plagued coal miners at the time was methane, an explosive gas that accumulated in mines. Occasionally, miners' lamps would touch off a deadly explosion. In 1815 Stephenson developed a new lamp that would not spark an explosion. The invention added greatly to Stephenson's reputation as a budding engineer. (At the same time, one of England's most important scientists, Humphrey Davy [1778–1829], developed a similar lamp, leading to a long argument between the two men over who came up with the idea first. Apparently, it was a case of both men simultaneously having a similar idea.)
Stephenson's big break
By 1812, Stephenson's sophistication with engines led to his becoming the Killingworth mine's enginewright, a job that involved repairing and manufacturing engines. The following year, he learned of efforts to develop a steam-powered locomotive at the nearby Wylam coal mine. He suggested to the manager of the Killingworth mine that he could develop a locomotive himself—and the manager agreed to let him try.
In 1814, Stephenson's locomotive, called the Blutcher, was running, able to pull 30 tons (60,000 pounds) of coal ore uphill at 4 miles an hour. Stephenson's locomotive was not the only one developed at the time, however. But it did have some unique features, notably the fact that the steam engine applied its power directly to the locomotive's flanged wheels. (On railroad cars and engines, a flange is a rim around the edge of the wheel that prevents the wheel from slipping sideways off the rail.)
Other Locomotive Pioneers
George Stephenson was not the only engineer engaged in building locomotives in the early nineteenth century. Other coal mines had the same requirements as Stephenson's and funded designs of similar engines.
Richard Trevithick (1771–1833) was among the most famous, but least successful, pioneers in developing locomotives. Like George Stephenson, Trevithick was a mine engineer when he developed a miniature locomotive in 1796. In 1801 Trevithick demonstrated a larger working version, called Puffing Devil, by taking seven friends for a ride on Christmas Eve. But the locomotive only worked on short trips since it could not maintain steam pressure for long. James Watt (1736–1819; see entry), developer of the steam engine, saw Puffing Devil and thought that it posed a danger of exploding.
A series of other locomotives designed by Trevithick also failed; most proved too heavy for the cast iron rails they ran over. Trevithick eventually moved to Peru to work as an engineer in a silver mine. There, his engines were successful, and he earned enough money to buy his own silver mine. But fighting during Peru's war for independence from Spain forced Trevithick to abandon his property and flee to Colombia in 1826. There, he met Robert Stephenson, who was building a railway. Stephenson sympathized with hisfellow English railroad pioneer and gave Trevithick enough money to get back to London. In 1828 George Stephenson credited Trevithick with important contributions in the evolution of the locomotive, but despite Stephenson's endorsement, Parliament (the British government) declined funding to pay Trevithick a pension (money paid in retirement). He died in extreme poverty in 1833.
William Hedley (1779–1843) was managing the Wylam coal mine in 1808 when the owner asked him to produce a steam locomotive. Hedley first introduced a system of smooth iron rails, convinced that the weight of the locomotive would produce enough traction. In 1814 Hedley produced a working locomotive that ran on eight wheels, instead of four, thereby distributing the weight so that the rails could support it.
In 1814 Hedley, aided by two craftsmen at the mine, Jonathan Foster and Timothy Hackworth, produced a working locomotive at almost the same time as George Stephenson. The design differed, principally in the way the steam engine delivered power to the wheels, but the Hedley model worked. Two engines he produced—including the Puffing Billy and the Wylam Dilly—were still functioning sixty years later.
Over the next five years, Stephenson built sixteen locomotives at Killingworth mine, mostly for use in the mine, but a few for use on a wagonway owned by the duke of Portland. Stephenson's work so impressed his employer that in 1819 the mine asked him to build a railroad 8 miles long, between the town of Hetton and the River Wear. For this project, Stephenson proposed a combination of locomotives and stationary engines. Locomotives hauled the loaded cars over the first, relatively level, section of track. Then they were pulled uphill by a steam engine at the top of the hill, using cables. The cars then coasted downhill, where another fixed engine, located at the top of the next hill, pulled them to the top. It was the first railway powered entirely by machines, with no animals used.
Working on this project, Stephenson realized that it would be a huge advantage if the railway could be built to be as level as possible. This project launched Stephenson on the second part of his career: that of a builder of railways.
In 1821 the British Parliament authorized the construction of a horse railway to connect coal mines in West Durham and Darlington, England, to the River Tees. Stephenson arranged a meeting with the owner of the company building the railway and told him that his Blutcher locomotive, which runs on iron tracks, could replace fifty horses.
Stephenson's argument was persuasive, and the Stockton and Darlington Railway gave the job to him. With his son
as his partner, Stephenson formed Robert Stephenson and Company, headquartered in Newcastle, England, to build the railway and the locomotives that would be used on it. It was the world's first company formed to produce locomotives.
On September 27, 1825, Stephenson operated his new engine, named Locomotion, along the nine-mile railroad in just less than two hours.
Success builds on success
The Stockton and Darlington Railway was the first of many successes enjoyed by George and Robert Stephenson. As railways started to replace canals for transporting heavy loads, their firm was hired to build other railways, including their biggest triumph, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, designed to link England's greatest manufacturing center, Manchester, with the port city of Liverpool.
In 1828 the directors of the railway held a contest to see whose locomotives would be used on the line. In addition to the contract for building the locomotive, the winner was to receive a substantial cash prize. Ten locomotives were entered into the contest in October 1829. Of the ten, only five arrived on the day of the competition, and two of these were ruled out as being too heavy for the rails. Competitors' locomotives were required to run up and down the track at Rain-hill, hauling a load three times the locomotive's own weight, at a speed of 10 miles an hour, for a distance equivalent to a round trip between Liverpool and Manchester.
The Stephensons's entry, Rocket, won the competition, thereby cementing their reputation as England's leading builders of locomotives.
Two years later, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened with ceremonies that included the British prime minister, the duke of Wellington, and other prominent people, plus a procession of locomotives. The ceremony was marred when one government minister was hit by a locomotive and killed, but the Liverpool and Manchester Railway itself was a great success and led to much more business for Robert Stephenson and Company.
In 1838 Stephenson's business success enabled him to buy a mansion, named Tapton House, a far cry from the modest cottage next to the Wylam wagonway where he had been born. He invested in coal mines and ironworks and experimented with agriculture, including a scheme to increase the productivity of chickens by shutting them in dark henhouses after they ate. Stephenson's dual success at engineering and business was an early example of how the Industrial Revolution changed the prospects for bright young people of modest beginnings.
Stephenson died at Tapton House on August 12, 1848.
For More Information
Nock, O. S. Father of Railways: The Story of George Stephenson. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. Nelson, 1958.
Rolt, L. T. C. The Railway Revolution: George and Robert Stephenson. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1962.
Smiles, Samuel. The Life of George Stephenson, Railway Engineer. Ann Arbor, MI: Plutarch Press, 1971.
Lynn, Jack. "Secrets of Seven Self-made Millionaires." Washingtonian, February 1981, p. 100.
"George Stephenson, a Biography of the English Inventor and Railroad Pioneer." Britain Express.http://www.britainexpress.com/History/bio/stephenson.htm (accessed on February 17, 2003).
"Some Historical Background to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway." Resco Railways Ltd.http://www.resco.co.uk/iron.html (accessed on February 17, 2003).
Williams, Frederick S. "Our Iron Roads." Resco Railways Ltd.http://www.resco.co.uk/stevensons.html (accessed on February 17, 2003).