High Pressure, Part 2: The First Steam Railway

Railways long predate the steam locomotive. Trackways with grooves to keep a wheeled cart on a fixed path date back to antiquity (such as the Diolkos, which could carry a naval vessel across the Isthmus of Corinth on a wheeled truck). The earliest evidence for carts running atop wooden rails, though, comes from the mining districts of sixteenth century Europe. Agricola describes a kind of primitive railway used by German miners in his 1556 treatise De Re Metallica. Agricola reports that the miners ran trucks called Hunds (“dogs”) (supposedly because of the barking noise they made while in motion) over two parallel wooden planks. A metal pin protruding down from the truck into the gap between the planks kept it from rolling off the track.[1] This system allowed a laborer to carry far more material out of the mine in a single trip than they could by carrying it themselves.

British Railways

Wooden railways called “waggon ways” are first attested in the coal-mining areas of Britain around 1600. These differed in two important ways from earlier mining carts: first, they ran outside the mine, carrying coal a short distance (perhaps a mile or two) to the nearest high-quality road or navigable waterway from which it could be brough to market. Second, they were drawn by horses, at least on the uphill courses—on some eighteenth-century wagon ways, the horse actually caught a ride downhill, standing on a flat carriage behind the cart. Flanged wheels to keep the wagon on the track were also probably introduced around this time. Both wheels and rails were still constructed of wood, however, which limited the load the wagons could carry.[2]

By the middle of the eighteenth century, waggon ways crisscrossed the mining districts of northern England, especially around the coalfields, creating a substantial trade in birch wheels and rails of beech or ash from the South. They were called by many different names, such as “gangways,” “plateways,” “tramways,” or “tramroads.” Colliers invested sophisticated engineering into their design, using bridges, causeways, and tunnels to create a smooth grade from the pithead to the point of embarkation (such as the Tyne or the Severn rivers).[3] Most were no more than a mile or two long, but some ran as far as ten miles. They were smooth enough that a single horse could haul several times on rails what it could on an ordinary eighteenth-century road: the figures given by various sources for the load of a horse-drawn rail carriage range from two to ten tons, likely depending on the grade of the railway and the material composition of the rails and wheels.[4]

The Little Eaton Gangway, a railway built in the 1790s, that, incredibly, continued to operate until 1908, when this photo was taken. It carried coal five miles down to the Derby Canal.
This close-up of the Little Eaton Gangway shows clearly the design of the railbed, with L-shaped rails to hold the wagon on the track, and stone blocks underneath to which they were nailed. The Penydarren railway, discussed below, had the same design.

This may seem prologue enough, but two further milestones in the development of railways still intervened before the steam locomotive came into the picture. Around the late 1760s, the Darbys of Coalbrookdale step into our history once more. They are reputed to have been the first to introduce durable cast iron plates to strengthen the rails that they used to carry materials among their various Shropshire properties.[5] Later the Darbys and others introduced fully cast-iron rails, doing away with wood altogether. With this change in material the railways of England (already intimately linked with coal mining) now became fully enmeshed in the cycle of the triumvirate—coal, iron, and steam—well before they became steam-powered.

Then, in 1799, came the first public horse-drawn railway. Up to this time, all railways  served the needs of a single owner (though some required an easement across neighboring properties), typically a mining concern. But the Surrey Iron Railway, which ran from Croydon (south of London) up to the Thames at Wandsworth, was open to any paying cargo, much like a turnpike road or a canal. Among the backers of the Surrey Iron Railway was a Midlands colliery owner, William James, who will have an important part to play later in our story.[6]

So, although we think of them now as two components of a single technological system, the locomotive and the railway did not start out that way. Instead, the locomotive appeared on the scene as an alternative way of hauling freight over an already familiar and well-established transportation medium.


Richard Trevithick was the first Englishman to attempt this substitution. He was born in 1771, in the heart of the copper-mining region of Cornwall. His birthplace, the village of Illogan, sat beneath the weathered hill of Carn Brea, said to be the ancient dwelling place of a giant.[7] But the only giants still found upon the landscape of eighteenth-century Cornwall breathed steam. They sheltered in the stone engine houses that still dot the countryside today, and raised water from the bottom of the mine, allowing the proprietors to delve ever deeper into the earth. Trevithick’s father was a mine “captain,” a high-status position with the responsibilities of a general manager and some of the same cachet among the mining community as a sea captain would have in a nautical community. This included the privilege of an honorific title: he was “Captain Trevithick” to his neighbors. The elder Trevithick’s work included serving as mine engineer and assayer, and he would have been familiar with all the technical workings of the mine, from the digging equipment to the pumping engine.

The younger Trevithick must have learned well from his father. At fifteen, he was employed by his father at Dolcoath, the most lucrative copper mine of the region. By age 21, having grown into something of a giant himself—standing a burly six feet two, his pastimes were said to include hurling sledgehammers over buildings—the miners of Cornwall already consulted him for his expertise on steam engines.[8]

A portrait of Trevithick painted in 1816, when he was 45. He gestures to the Andes of Peru in the background, where Trevithick intended, at the time, to make his fortune in silver mining.

By the 1790s, Boulton and Watt were about as popular in Cornwall as Fulton and Livingston were in the American West, and for the same reason: they were seen as grasping monopolists who kept the miners of Cornwall, who depended on effective pumps for their livelihood, in thrall to the Watt patent. Fifteen years earlier, Watt’s efficient engines had appeared as a lifeline to copper mines suffering under competition from the prodigious Parys Mountain in Anglesey, whose ample ores could be cheaply mined directly from the surface.[9] But as the mines continued to struggle, Boulton and Watt began to take shares in mines in lieu of payment, and set up a headquarters at Cusgarne, right in the copper district, to oversee their investments. One of their most skilled mechanics, William Murdoch, moved to Cornwall and acted as their local agent. To the copper miners, Boulton and Watt began to look like meddlers as well as leeches. By the 1790s, Anglesey ran out of easy-to-reach ore, and the fortunes of the Cornwall copper mines began to look up. With their mutual enemy gone, the grudging partnership between the Cornish miners and Boulton and Watt soured rapidly.

An 1831 engraving of Dolcoath copper mine, in Cornwall.

Trevithick, a hot-headed young man, took up the banner of revolution against the Boulton and Watt regime in 1792, fighting a series of legal battles on behalf of the competing engine design of Edward Bull. By 1796 every battle had been lost—Bull and Trevithick’s attempt to defy the Watt patent had failed, and there seemed to be nothing for the Cornwall interests to do but wait for the expiration of its term, in 1800.[10]

But Trevithick found another way forward: strong steam. More than any other element, the separate condenser distinguished Watt’s patent engine from its predecessors. By shedding the condenser and operating well above atmospheric pressure instead, Trevithick could avoid claims of infringement. Concerned that releasing uncondensed steam would waste all the power of the engine, he consulted Cornwall’s resident mathematician, Davies Giddy. Giddy reassured him that he would waste a fixed amount of power equal to the weight of the atmosphere, and would gain some compensation in return by saving the power required to work an air pump and lift water into the condenser.[11] As in the U.S., then, the socioeconomic environment pushed steam engine users on the periphery toward high-pressure, though in this case it was the presence of a rival patent rather than an absence of capital resources.

Trevithick saw an immediate application for high-pressure steam as a replacement for the horse whim, an animal-powered lift which worked alongside the pumping engine in many Cornish mines, usually in the same vertical shaft, to raise ore and dross from below. A few whims had been installed with Watt engines, but Trevithick’s “puffers” (so called for the visible puff of exhaust steam they released) cost less to build and transport. The compact high-pressure engine also fit much more comfortably in the engine house alongside the pumping engine than a second Watt behemoth would. 

An 1806 Trevithick stationary steam engine, minus the flywheel it would have had at the time to maintain a steady motion. Note how the exhaust flue comes out of the middle of the cylindrical boiler, the same return-flue design used by Evans to extract additional heat from the hot gases of the furnace.

Trevithick’s engines thus began replacing horse whims in engine houses across Cornwall in the early 1800s.[12] The Watt interests were not happy: much later in life Trevithick claimed that Watt (probably referring in this case to the belligerent James Watt, Jr., the inventor’s son), “said to an eminent scientific character still living that I deserved hanging for bringing into use the high pressure,” presumably because of the danger of explosion.[13] One of Trevithick’s boilers, installed to drain the foundation for a corn mill in Greenwich, did in fact explode in 1803 when left unattended, and the Watts did not miss the opportunity to get in their “I told you sos” in the press.[14] In future engines Trevithick would include two safety valves, plus a plug soldered with lead as a final safety measure: if the water level fell too low, the heat would melt the solder and blow out the plug, relieving excess pressure.

But Trevithick’s interest had by this time already wandered from staid industrial applications to the more romantic dream of a steam carriage.

Steam Carriage

As we have seen already several times in this story, many inventors and philosophers had dreamed the same dream, dating back well over a century. To realize how readily available the idea of a steam carriage was, we must remember that steam power’s job, in a sense, had always been to replace either horse- or water-power, and that carriages were the most ubiquitous piece of horse-powered machinery around in early modern Europe.

The first person we know of to successfully build a steam carriage (if we construe success loosely), was a French army officer named Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot. More specifically, he built a steam fardier, a cart for pulling cannon. It was a curious looking tricycle with the boiler hanging off the front like an elephantine proboscis. Cugnot carried out some trial runs of his vehicle in 1769, but with no way to refill the boiler while in use, it had to stop every fifteen minutes to let the boiler cool, refill it, and work up steam once more. This was a curiosity without real practical value.[15]

Cugnot’s Fardier à Vapeur, preserved at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.

Trevithick probably never heard of Cugnot, but he certainly knew William Murdoch, Watt’s representative in Cornwall. Murdoch began experimenting with high-pressure steam carriages in the 1780s, and built a three-wheeled carriage that (like Cugnot’s cart) survives today in a museum. Unlike Cugnot’s, vehicle however, Murdoch’s surviving machine is a model, no more than a foot tall. Lacking the backing of his employers, who disliked strong steam and found the carriage concept unpromising if not ridiculous, Murdoch’s tinkerings did not even get as far as Cugnot’s. There is no evidence that he ever built a full-sized carriage. [16]

Murdoch’s model steam carriage.

It’s unclear why Trevithick decided to build a steam-powered vehicle—he may have been trying to develop a portable engine that could be moved between work sites under its own power. It is possible that Trevithick got the idea for a steam carriage from Murdoch, but, as we have seen, the idea was commonplace. In the execution of that idea, Trevithick went far beyond his predecessor.

He began work on his steam carriage in late 1800, with the help of his cousin Andrew Vivian and several other local craftsmen. He already had in hand his high-pressure engine design, with a very favorable power-to-weight ratio compared to a Watt engine. A small and light engine was advantageous in a steamboat, but it was crucial in a land vehicle that had to rest on wheels and fit on narrow roads. He used the same return-flue boiler design as Oliver Evans had; given the distance and timing, they almost certainly arrived at this idea independently.

Many wise men of the time doubted that a self-driving wheel was even possible, arguing that it would simply spin in place without an animal with traction to pull it. Trevithick therefore felt it necessary to first disprove this theory (in an experiment probably devised by Giddy) by sitting in a chaise with his compatriots, and moving the vehicle by turning the wheels with their hands.[17]

In December 1801 they went for their first steam-powered ride. What exactly the first carriage looked like is unknown, but it was likely a simple wheeled platform with engine and boiler mounted atop it and a crude lever for steering. Years later one “old Stephen Williams” (not so old at the time) would recall:

I was a cooper by trade, and when Captain Dick [Trevithick] was making his first-steam carriage I used to go every day into John Tyack’s blacksmiths’ shop at the Weith, close by here, where they were putting it together. …In the year of 1801, upon Christmas-eve, coming on evening, Captain Dick got up steam, out in the high road… we jumped up as many as could; may be seven or eight of us. ‘Twas a stiffish hill going from the Weith up to Cambourne Beacon, but she went off like a little bird.[18]

Within days, this first carriage quite literally crashed and burned (though the burning was apparently caused by leaving the carriage unattended with the firebox lit, not by the crash itself).[19] Nonetheless, Trevithick formed a partnership with his cousin Vivian to develop both the high-pressure engine and its use in carriages, and they went to London to seek a patent and additional backers and advisers, including such scientific luminaries as Humphrey Davy and Count Rumford.

They had a second carriage built, this one designed as a true passenger vehicle with a compartment to accommodate eight. Giddy nicknamed it “Trevithick’s Dragon.” It worked better than the first attempt, running a good eight miles-per-hour on level ground, but the ride was rough. For some decades, steel spring suspensions had been standard on carriages, but the direct geared linkage between the drive wheels and the engine on Trevithick’s carriage did not allow for them to move independently.[20] The steering mechanism also worked poorly. In one early trial Trevithick tore the rail from a garden wall, and Vivian’s relative Captain Joseph Vivian (actually a sea captain) reported after a drive that he “thought he was more likely to suffer shipwreck on the steam-carriage than on board his vessel…”[21] It offered no obvious advantages over a horse carriage to offset the loss of comfort and control, not to mention the risk of fire and explosion. The Dragon attracted some curious onlookers, but no investors.

Steam Railway

If steam-powered vehicles on water found success first in the U.S. because alternative modes of inland transportation were lacking, steam-powered vehicles on land found success first in Britain because the transportation medium to support them already existed. The railways offered the perfect solution for the problems of Trevithick’s steam carriage: a road without cobbles or ruts to jounce on, a road that steered the carriage for you, and a road with no passengers to annoy or endanger. But Trevithick was not positioned to see it, because Cornwall did not have railways of any kind (its first, the Portreath Tramroad was not constructed until 1812). It would take a new connection to link the engine born out of the struggle with Watt over the mines of Cornwall to the rails created to solve the problems of northern coalfields.

On business in Bristol in 1803, Trevithick made that connection, when he met a Welsh ironmaster named Samuel Homfray, who provided him with fresh capital in exchange for a share in his patent, and solicited his aid in building steam engines for his ironworks, called Penydarren. It also happened that Homfray also had part ownership of a railway, and the opportunity thus arose to marry high-pressure steam to rails.

For Homfray this was also an opportunity to show up a rival. He and several other ironmasters had invested in a canal to carry their wares down to the port at Cardiff, but the controlling partner, Richard Crawshay, demanded exclusive privileges over the waterway. Homfray and several of the other partners exploited a loophole to bypass Crawshay. At the time, any public thoroughfare (on land or water) required an act of Parliament to approve its construction. The act approving the Cardiff canal also allowed for the construction of railways within four miles of the canal.

The intent of this was to allow for feeder lines. Rails, at the time, were a strictly secondary transportation system. They provided “last-mile” service from mining centers to a navigable waterway. A boom in canal building that began in the later eighteenth century extended and interconnect those waterways, which offered far lower transportation costs than any form of land transportation. If a horse could pull several times the weight on a railway that it could on an ordinary road, it could pull several times more again when hitched to a canal barge.[22] (The plummeting transportation costs brought about by the ability to float cargo to the coast from nearly any town in England by horse-drawn barge account for the lack of British interest in riverine steamboats.) So the goal was almost always to get goods to water as quickly as possible.

The trick that Homfray and his allies pulled was to build a railway as a primarytransportation link in its own right, paralleling the canal for over nine miles, rather than connecting directly to it, and thereby neutering Crawshay’s privileges.[23] It was on this railway that Homfray (or perhaps Trevithick, which partner initiated the idea is unknown) proposed to replace horse power with steam power. Crawshay found the concept laughable. Like many of his contemporaries, he believed that the smooth wheels would find no purchase on smooth rails, and would simply spin in place. The ironmasters placed a not-so-friendly wager of 500 guineas over whether Trevithick could build a locomotive to haul ten tons of iron the length of the railway. On February 21st, 1804, Crawshay lost. As Trevithick reported to Giddy:

Yesterday we proceeded on our journey with the engine; we carry’d ten tons of Iron, five waggons, and 70 Men riding on them the whole of the journey. Its above 9 miles which we perform’d in 4 hours & 5 Mints, but we had to cut down som trees and remove some Large rocks out of road. The engine, while working, went nearly 5 miles pr hour; …We shall continue to work on the road, and shall take forty tons the next journey. The publick untill now call’d mee a schemeing fellow but now their tone is much alter’d.[24]

We should not picture the Penydarren engine in the mind’s eye as the iconic, fully-developed steam locomotive of the mid-19th century. The railbed itself looked very different than what we might imagine: the cast-iron rails were outward-facing Ls, whose vertical stroke kept the wheels from leaving the track. Nails driven into two parallel rows of stone blocks held the rails in place. This arrangement avoided having perpendicular rail ties (or sleepers, as the British call them) that could trip up the horses, who walked between the rails as they pulled their cargo. Trevithick’s locomotive resembled a stationary engine jury-rigged to a wheeled platform. A crosshead and large gears carried power from the cylinder down to the left-hand wheels (only, the right side received no power), and a flywheel kept the vehicle from lurching each time the piston reached the dead center position. Trevithick’s goal was to show off the versatility of high-pressure steam, not to launch a railroad revolution.

A replica showing what the Penydarren locomotive may have looked like. Note the fixed gearing system for delivering power to the two wheels in the foreground, the flywheel in the background, and the L-shaped rails. Notice also how much it resembles Trevithick’s stationary steam engine, with additional mechanisms to transmit power to the wheels.

The Penydarren locomotive performed several more trial runs; on at least one, the rails cracked under the engine’s weight: a portent of a major technical obstacle yet to be overcome before steam railways could find lasting success. Trevithick then seems to have removed the engine and put it to work running a hammer in the ironworks; what became of the rest of the vehicle is unknown.[25]

Many other endeavors captured Trevithick’s attention in the following years; among them stationary engines at Penydarren and elsewhere, steam dredging experiments, and a scheme to use a steam tug to drag a fireship into the midst of Napoleon’s putative invasion fleet at Bolougne (as we have seen, Robert Fulton was at this time trying to sell the British government on his “torpedoes” to serve the same purpose). In 1808, he made once last stab at steam locomotion, a demonstration vehicle called the Catch-me-who-can that ran over a temporary circular track in London. Again, rail breakage proved a problem. Trevithick hoped to earn some money from paying riders and to attract the interest of investors, but he failed on both accounts.[26]

The reasons for the lack of interest are clear. Trevithick’s locomotives were neither much faster nor obviously cheaper than a team of horses, and they came with a host of new, unsolved technical problems. Twenty more years would elapse before rails would begin to seriously challenge canals as major transport arteries for Britain, not mere peripheral capillaries. To make that happen would require improvements in locomotives, better rails, and a new way of thinking about the comparative economics of transportation.

Trevithick himself had twenty-five more years of restless, peripatetic life ahead of him, much of it spent on fruitless mining ventures in South and Central America. In an irresistible historical coincidence, in 1827, at the end of a financially ruinous trip to Costa Rica, he crossed paths with another English engineer named Robert Stephenson. Stephenson gave the downtrodden older man fifty pounds to help him get home. After a spate of mostly failed or abortive projects, Trevithick died in 1833. The one item of real wealth remaining to him, a gold watch brought back from South America, went to defray his funeral expenses.[27] Young Stephenson, however, returned to much brighter prospects in England. He and his father would soon redeem the promise hinted at by the trials at Penydarren.

[1] Agricola, De Re Metallica, 156.

[2] Richard S. Smith, “England’s First Rails: A Reconsideration,” Renaissance and Modern Studies 4, 1 (1960),119-134; Galloway, Annals of Coal Mining, 250.

[3] Galloway, 249-250, 257-258.

[4] Galloway, 284 gives about 2 tons (Galloway quotes a figure of fifty to sixty bushels, and a bushel of coal weighed about eighty pounds), as does Dorian Gerhold, “The Rise and Fall of the Surrey Iron Railway, 1802-46,” Surrey Archaeological Collections 95 (2010)207; and Duncan McNaughton, “The Elgin or Charlestown Railway, 1762-1863,” (Dunfermline, 1986), 18.  Anthony Burton, Richard Trevithick: Giant of Steam (London: Aurum Press, 2000), 89 gives ten tons and A.W. Skempton, “The Engineers of the English River Navigations 1620-1760,” Transactions of the Newcomen Society 29, 1 (1953), 25, says 8 tons. Rhodes, Energy, 65 gives an astonishing figure of thirty tons, but it’s unclear where this number is sourced from.

[5] Rhys Jenkins, “   Transactions of the Newcomen Society 4, 1 (1923), 105-106.

[6] Gavin Weightman, The Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World, 1776-1914 (New York: Grove Press, 2007), 118.

[7] Anthony Burton, Richard Trevithick: Giant of Steam (London: Aurum Press, 2000), 14; John Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution (Liverpool: Liverpool University, 1953), 66; Proper Cornwall, “Basset Monument,” (https://web.archive.org/web/20221004032950/https://propercornwall.co.uk/attractions/basset-monument).

[8] Burton, 11, 28, 36.

[9] D. B. Barton, A History of Copper Mining in Cornwall and Devon (Truro: D. Bradford Barton, 1978), 30-40.

[10] Burton, 41-49.

[11] Burton, 60.

[12] Burton 60; H.W. Dickinson and Arthur Titley, Richard Trevithick: The Engineer and the Man (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934), 45.

[13] Quoted in Dickinson and Titley, 5.

[14] Dickinson and Titley, 60.

[15] Burton, 63-64.

[16] Burton, 65-68.

[17] Dickinson and Titley, 46-47; Burton 69-73.

[18] Quoted in Burton, 70.

[19] Burton 73-74.

[20] Gordon S. Cantle, “The Steel Spring Suspensions of Horse-Drawn Carriages (circa 1760 to 1900),” Transactions of the Newcomen Society 50, 1 (1978), 25.


[21] Burton, 81-82.

[22] A. W. Skempton, “The Engineers of the English River Navigations 1620-1760,” Transactions of the Newcomen Society (1954), 25; F. T. Evans, “Roads, Railways, and Canals: Technical Choices in 19th-Century Britain,” Technology and Culture 22, 1 (1981), 8-10.

[23] Burton, 77-78.

[24] Qouted in Dickinson and Titley, 64-65.

[25] Burton, 89-93.

[26] Burton, 96-98.

[27] Burton, 206-207, 229.

2 thoughts on “High Pressure, Part 2: The First Steam Railway”

  1. Thank you for this excellent telling of the history.

    There is one small point I would like to consider: “In future engines Trevithick would include two safety valves, plus a plug of mercury as a final safety measure: it would blow out under extreme pressure conditions, relieving excess pressure.”

    Mercury is liquid even at room temperature, so I suspect this is referring to a fusible plug, which is a brass or iron plug with a hole through it, normally blocked by being filled with a low melting-point metal or alloy such as lead, solder or perhaps a suitable amalgam. Such a plug is intended to prevent the boiler exploding as a result of the water level falling to the point where it no longer covered the firebox crown (or whichever part of the boiler was most directly exposed to the heat of the fire.) If this happened, the plating would rapidly overheat, soften, and fail even at normal working pressure. With a fusible plug installed in the highest point of the crown, the plug would melt first, and the steam pressure would be relatively safely released into the firebox.


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