Richard Trevithick

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Richard Trevithick


English Engineer

Richard Trevithick was a mechanical engineer and inventor who created the first high-pressure steam engine and built the first steam railway locomotive. Despite the importance of his inventions, Trevithick failed to profit by them.

Trevithick was born in Cornwall, England. Not considered a good student, he attended the village school, and throughout his life remained barely literate. His father managed a coal mine, and thanks to an ability to solve engineering problems, Trevithick received his first job as an engineer at several Cornish ore mines at the age of 19.

Because of his association with coal mines, Trevithick was early exposed to the steam engines made by James Watt (1736-1819). Watt had invented a steam engine that employed steam at a low pressure. A cautious inventor, Watt believed that high-pressure steam was too dangerous to harness. Trevithick, however, took high-pressure steam and allowed it to expand within the cylinder, which resulted in an engine that was smaller and lighter than Watt's version but without any loss of power. He demonstrated, contrary to contemporary belief, that machinery could be powered by using pressures higher than the atmosphere's. After building working models of both stationary and locomotive engines, Trevithick built a full-scale engine for hoisting ore. These engines were used at the Cornish mines and because they released steam were called "puffer whims." (Trevithick brought increased power to his engine by releasing waste steam into the smokestack, increasing the fire's draft and temperature.) In 1802 he and his cousin Andrew Vivian took out a patent for high-pressure engines.

Trevithick used what he had learned building high-pressure steam engines to build a steam-driven locomotive. He drove his first steam carriage, which carried passengers, on Christmas Eve in 1801. In 1803 Trevithick drove a second carriage through the streets of London and built the first steam railway locomotive in South Wales. In 1804, that same locomotive, the New Castle, carried 10 tons of iron and 70 men along 10 miles of tramway. He built a similar locomotive at Gateshead in 1805, and in 1808, Trevithick's third locomotive, the Catch-me-who-can, ran on a track in London. Trevithick abandoned these locomotive projects because cast-iron rails proved unable to support the weight of his engines. He demonstrated, however, that smooth metal wheels moving over a smooth metal track could actually create enough friction to move weight. Unfortunately, George Stephenson (1781-1848) and his son Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), who used many of Trevithick's discoveries, were to become known as the "parents" of steam-powered railway transportation.

Trevithick then turned his attention to other designs. He adapted his engine to drive an ironrolling mill as well as to propel a barge that used paddle wheels. He designed dredging and threshing machines, also powered by his steam engine. (He attempted, but failed, to dig a tunnel under the Thames River using a dredger.) The success of these engines was related to improvements that Trevithick made in the design and construction of boilers.

Trevithick's career was marred by a series of poor business decisions. An untrustworthy partner and the Thames dredging failure contributed to the 1811 bankruptcy of his London business. His engines were later ordered for use in the Peruvian silver mines, and in 1816 he left for Peru and Costa Rica with the prospect of mineral wealth and the intention of linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by rail. This venture also failed, and in order to return to England Trevithick borrowed money from one of the Stephensons, who by this time had become rich from railway profits. Trevithick died in poverty and, only after the men in his workshop contributed money for his funeral, he was buried in an unmarked grave.