The Rail Revolution

As we noted last time, twenty years elapsed from the time when Trevithick gave up on the steam locomotive before rails would begin to seriously challenge canals as major transport arteries for Britain, not mere peripheral capillaries. To complete that revolution required improvements in locomotives, better rails, and a new way of thinking about the comparative economics of transportation.

Locomotives: The Trevithick Tradition

The evolution of locomotive technology in the 1810s and 1820s took place entirely in the coal-mining regions of the north, and almost entirely along the River Tyne near Newcastle, into whose waters a torrent of coal flowed over a of tangle of railways. Because of this, Trevithick’s most lasting impact on history did not come from Penydarren, nor the “dragon,” nor Catch-me-who-Can, but an engine built for Christopher Blackett, proprietor of the Tyneside colliery of Wylam. Blackett’s colliery would become the most prolific locomotive-building center of the 1810s.

In 1804, Blackett had learned of Trevithick’s locomotive, and had a skilled workman who had been at Penydarren reproduce the design for him in Northumberland. Nothing came of this first attempt, as Blackett realized that the five miles of wooden rails at his colliery would never survive the attentions of the five-ton locomotive. He put it to use as a stationary engine instead. After relaying his tracks in cast iron, he wrote to Trevithick in 1808 about trying again, but by that time the disillusioned inventor had already given up on locomotives for other schemes.[2]

The story of exactly what happened at Wylam next is not entirely clear, and is further muddied by competing claims for precedence as the key figure in the construction of the first reallocomotive, claims pursued with a partiality verging on mendacity by the protagonists and their descendants well into the twentieth century.[3] But sometime in the 1810s, Blackett decided to try again, and shift for himself this time, having the locomotive construction done at his own works under the direction of his own “viewer” (the title for the general manager of a coal mine), William Hedley, with consultation from his smith foreman, Timothy Hackworth.[4]

It may be that Blackett was stimulated to action by the activities of John Blenkinsop at the Middleton Colliery Railway near Leeds. The belief that a smooth wheel could not drive a vehicle on a smooth track still had currency, and inventors continued to look for alternative forms of steam traction: in 1813 one inventor, William Brunton, constructed a literal translation of a horse into mechanical form that would pull a vehicle along with metal legs.[5] Blenkinsop’s solution was a cog railway engine, built by the mechanic Matthew Murray, with a toothed drive wheel running in a rack set on the outside edge of the track. This Middletown engine ran consistently for years afterward, hauling up to thirty wagons at a leisurely three miles an hour.[6]

The Blenkinsop-Murray rack locomotive Salamanca, named after a victorious Anglo-Portuguese battle against Napoleonic forces.

Whether influenced by Blenkinsop or not, Blackett (like Trevithick) used a hand-powered truck to convince himself that a smooth-wheeled vehicle could in fact work, then had Hedley and Hackworth construct his first real locomotive. They clearly modeled their design on Trevithick’s Penydarren, with a return flue boiler and a flywheel. This first engine was too feeble. Nothing deterred, Blackett tried again. This second engine, known to history as Puffing Billy (it was originally named after Blackett’s daughter Jane), made considerable advances on Trevithick’s plan: it had two alternating pistons, which eliminated the need for a flywheel to sustain the vehicle’s momentum through the dead zones in the stroke. This change also made it easy to supply power to wheels on both sides, which avoided heavily wearing one side of the rail. Rather than direct gearing, vertical rods connected to small geared spur wheels brought power from the engine down to the wheels. However, Billy was too heavy even for the cast iron track, and consistently broke the rails. So, Blackett tried a third time. This time the builders placed the engine on two four-wheeled trucks, spreading the weight over twice as many wheels. This did the trick. Finally, Wylam had a usable steam locomotive.[7]

The eight-wheeled Wylam locomotive design.

One might wonder why Blackett persisted through so many failures. What we might see in retrospect as determination appeared to most contemporaries as folly, if not madness. Although the steam locomotive concept had a certain romantic appeal to nineteenth-century gearheads, economic forces also made it worthwhile to seek out any possible replacement for horse-power at exactly this time. Since the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain had been cut off from European trade and had been supplying its own armies overseas, and the price of horses and the grain to feed them rose accordingly. Oat prices in the 1810s were 50% or more higher than they had been in the 1790s, and the demands of the army’s operations also made the horses themselves dear. So, it is no coincidence that multiple steam locomotive experiments sprung up in this period.[8]

George Stephenson had the same cost-cutting reason in mind when he built his first locomotive in 1814. Stephenson, like his father before him, became a steam engine minder in the Newcastle coal district, working his way up from assistant fireman (responsible for stoking the furnace) to brakeman (responsible for regulating the speed of the machinery that lifted cages of coal out of the mine).[9] But he was not an ordinary sort of workman: when his colleagues went to drink and bet on dogfights, he instead disassembled his engine to better understand its workings, cleaned it, and put it together again.[10] 

In 1806, his young wife and infant daughter died, leaving him alone with a three-year-old son and infirm parents to care for. He considered leaving for a fresh start in the United States, but lacked he money. Nonetheless, he scraped together the funds to ensure that his son Robert would benefit from a more formal education than he did, and Robert tutored his father in turn, advancing the elder Stephenson’s mechanical and scientific knowledge. A turn of fortune finally came in 1810, when George repaired a faulty pumping engine that had defied all the attempts to its operators to make it run well enough to drain the pit. Stephenson thus gained a reputation as an “engine-doctor,” a kind of consulting engineer for problem engines in the region. This led to a position as “engine-wright” at the Killingworth High Pit colliery in 1812, with a salary of one hundred pounds a year, marking a permanent departure from the laboring class.[11]

Stephenson, with the support of Killingworth’s owner, Thomas Liddell, was determined to bring down the cost of transporting coal from the mine to the river. He added inclines in several sections with a rope pull that used the weight of descending wagons to drag returning wagons up the incline. But he believed still more savings could be found with a steam locomotive. He and the workmen at Killingworth completed their first attempt, the Blücher, in July 1814. It was named in honor of the Prussian general who had helped to secure the defeat of Napoleonic France just a few months before. 

Stephenson had learned, and borrowed, from the work at Middleton and at Wylam, but introduced one major improvement: the so-called “steam blast,” a suction force created by releasing the spent steam from the cylinders into the furnace exhaust pipe, rather than into the open air. His initial motivation for redirecting the steam may have been to serve as a muffler: neighbors complained consistently of the loud noise created by the squeal of steam from early locomotives. But the ultimate value of this change came from the fact that it acted like a bellows, drawing air through the furnace and thus combusting the coal more vigorously, delivering more power to the wheels.

With the enhanced power from the steam blast, Stephenson had an economically sound engine, but it still ran in an unsatisfactory, jerky fashion. Stephenson identified the problem as the gears used to deliver power to the wheels in all locomotives since Trevithick’s. So, in 1815 he had a secondlocomotive constructed, which dispensed with the gearing by sending power from the piston through a rigid connecting rod directly to a pin on the wheel: the engine could thus work the wheel like a crank. This was trickier than it sounds, because he could not rely on the left and right rails running totally even. The connecting rod therefore required a ball-and-socket joint so each side could move up and down with the axle as it tilted one way or the other.[12]

Stephenson’s Killingworth engine.

Rails: A Materials Revolution

So, the locomotive advanced bit by bit, becoming ever more powerful, reliable, and efficient. But the iron beast strode on feet of clay – its rails. Well, in fact, the rails were made of iron, too. But they did keep breaking. The traditional railway had to be, in effect, reinvented to serve as a suitable substructure for the locomotive. This created something of a catch-22, since to prove the value of the locomotive required first adopting rail designs that were themselves unproven and more costly than the status quo. Promoters of the locomotive would have to sell the capitalists building new railways on the rail and the machine to run upon it at the same time.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, vertical, flat-topped rails replaced the L-shaped plateway rails that were common around 1800 in new railway construction. Flanges on the inner lip of the wheel kept the vehicle on course. This approach reduced friction and used less metal per yard of track. In the 1820s locomotive makers also began to use coned wheels, with a narrower radius at the outside than at the inside, which greatly improved their ability to hold a consistent line on the track, especially around corners. So far, all of this was in effect a rediscovery of what had been standard practice on wooden railways in the eighteenth century.[13]

A joint patent between George Stephenson and the chemist and engineer Wiliam Losh made some minor improvements to the design of cast iron rails, but the necessary improvements in rail design to make the steam locomotive a success appeared in 1820 in the work of John Birkinshaw. Birkinshaw introduced a whole host of innovations all at once. Most importantly, he had figured out how to roll sections of wrought iron rail that would be far tougher than the cast iron equivalent, allowing locomotives to swell in size and weight without concern for breaking the rails. He also replaced the traditional flat top for the rail with a convex curve, which would provide a smooth surface to ride on even if (as was often the case) the rail was not installed perfectly vertically. He realized that the sides of the rail were not needed for strength, and proposed the T-shaped rail cross-section that is still familiar today, saving on weight and cost. Finally, he found that he could produce rail in up to eighteen-foot-long sections, six times the standard for cast-iron rails, reducing the number of          joints that tended to jostle the machinery and the load.[14]

Rail cross-sections from Birkinshaw’s patent. Note the curved top surface and the now-common T-shape of the left- and right-most designs.

The basic design of railways for the steam age was now in place, in a form that would not change much until the Bessemer process made steel rails practical decades later. Stephenson recognized the superiority of Birkinshaw’s rails to such an extent that he jilted his own erstwhile partner, Losh, and chose wrought-iron rails for the first new railway for which he served as chief engineer, the Stockton and Darlington. This railway, opened in 1825, represented the emergence of the steam locomotive from colliery experiments and curiosities into the field of general public economic interest.

Economics: The Virtue of Speed

You’ll recall that the motivation for the various experiments with steam locomotives in the 1810s was to save money on horses – the steam engine was seen as a potentially cheaper source of traction within the framework of the existing system of colliery railways.

However, there was a grander vision for rail transport that had been percolating in the background since as early as 1800, when William Thomas, a colliery engineer, proposed to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society that the horse-drawn railway could serve as a general replacement for road transport, carrying goods and passengers between cities. A fellow visionary proposed that costs could be further reduced with supplementary steam engines along the way to pull the carriages along with chains. James Anderson, , a member of various philosophical and agricultural societies, wrote with enthusiasm of this proposal: “Around every market you may suppose a number of concentric circles drawn, within each of which certain articles are marketable, which were not so before, and thus become the source of wealth and prosperity to many individuals. Diminish the expence of carriage but one farthing, and you widen the circle ; you form, as it were, a new creation, not only of stones, and earth, and trees, and plants, but of men also, and, what is more, of industry, of happiness, and joy.”[15]

An expression became commonplace that the railway would “annihilate space and time.” It seems to have originated in a couplet from the 1720s as a hyperbolic declaration of the despair of parted lovers: “Ye gods! annihilate but space and time, And make two lovers happy.”[16] But railroad visionaries would deploy it again and again in the decades to come in an economic and technological sense.

William James, a lawyer and land agent born in 1771, was not the first railroad visionary, but he was the first to match such dreams with realistic means for achieving them. He became involved with railroads in 1801, when he helped fund the first one opened to public custom, the Surrey Iron Railway. In 1821, after surveying the various locomotive builders, he was most impressed with Stephenson, and penned a deal to promote his locomotives and railways. James connected Stephenson to the partners of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, a group of colliers who needed a link to the River Tees for their coal. With Stephenson as their chief engineer, they built the first public steam railway, twenty-five miles of rail open to anyone willing to pay to transport their cargo (or passengers).

It was through speed that the locomotive would prove its worth as a form of general communication, not a mere adjunct to colliers and canals, and it was at Stockton and Darlington that the locomotive first proved it could be significantly faster than a team of horses: when the railway first opened on September 27, 1825, the Stephenson locomotive pulled its hundred-ton load on the downhill run at a brisk pace of ten-to-twelve miles-per-hour. Horsemen attempting to follow the locomotive were unable to keep pace as they attempted to follow it through the wall- and hedge-strewn terrain alongside the railroad.[17]

This speed was anticipated by an anonymous 1824 Mechanics Magazine article on the economic advantages railways. The author pointed out that a horse pulled at its maximum power only at low speeds (say, two-and-a-half miles-per-hour). At higher speeds more and more of its power went to moving its own body, until at twelve miles-per-hour it could pull no load at all. Moreover, speed served even more of a handicap for the horse on a canal, because the friction of the water on the barge rose with the square of the speed. Neither disadvantage applied to a steam locomotive on rails, which could pull at ever higher speeds while losing relatively little power to air resistance. At two-and-a-half miles per hour, a given force would pull almost four times the weight in a canal barge than it would on rails, but at thirteen-and-a-half miles-per-hour the advantage was more than reversed: the rail’s power was undiminished but the canal load was reduced by a factor of almost thirty.[18]

This doctrine of speed was a new idea in the world of transportation. For millennia, bulk transport on land had depended on animals and barges plodding along at a couple of miles per hour. Economizing on transportation costs meant assuming low speeds as a given, and focusing on lowering the cost of pulling a single load, just as the locomotive builders of the 1810s had tried to do. But with higher speeds, more loads could be pulled with the same capital investment in a given time period. What’s more, entirely new markets could be opened up: delivery of fresh produce to urban markets, and rapid inter-urban passenger service. The Mechanics Magazine article made an immediate impression and the doctrine of speed quickly became the dogma of the rail promoters. Speed would make the echoing refrain of “the annihilation of space and time” a reality.

Settling the Question

But the promoters of the steam locomotive had not yet settled the question of what the future of land transportation would look like. The creators of the Stockton and Darlington line hedged their bets, including two stationary engines for pulling trains up steep sections and using horses for much of the cargo.[19] Skeptics and critics of the steam locomotive could still readily be found. Much of the landed gentry worried about the effect of screeching locomotives on their livestock and their land values. Canal and turnpike operators, of course, feared the competition.

 Other critics worried that locomotives would exhaust the country’s coal reserves, while still others questioned the safety of operating a vehicle at such high speeds.[20] One commentator on a proposed railroad at Woolwich wrote that

…we should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s ricochet rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine, going at such a rate… if ponderous bodies, moving with a velocity of ten or twelve miles an hour, were to impinge on any sudden obstruction, or a wheel break, they would be shattered like glass bottles dashed on a pavement ; then what would become of the Woolwich rail-road passengers, in such a case, whirling along at sixteen or eighteen miles an hour…? We trust, however, that Parliament will, in all the rail-roads it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured upon with safety.[21]

Stephenson’s next project, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, had to fight past these critics for Parliamentary approval. It was a landmark railway in two respects: first, by building an inter-urban link, its shareholders were committing to the railroad as a general form of transportation; this was not only or even primarily a means to bring coal to market. Second, those same shareholders committed wholeheartedly to steam traction; the traditional option of the horse was right out. Steam would pull their trains, the question was how: stationary engines or locomotives, and if a locomotive, of what design? To decide, they held a competition with a five-hundred-pound prize for the best engine, known as the Rainhill trials. One of the directors of the railway entered the Cycyloped, a carriage driven by a treadmill that was driven in turn by a horse walking atop it. More plausible entries included Sans Pareil, a locomotive design by former Wylam locomotive mechanic Timothy Hackworth, and Novelty, built by two London engineers.[22]

The winning entry, however, came from George’s son, Robert. After returning from his mining ventures in the New World in 1827, he had apprenticed in locomotive construction under his father. But he built his own masterwork, Rocket, for the Liverpool and Manchester. Its great design advance lay in its multi-tubular boiler: rather than a single return flue pipe, it had twenty-five separate copper tubes to carry the hot gases from the firebox through the boiler. This greatly increased the surface area to transfer to the boiler. The narrower tubes also eliminated a serious problem with the steam blast: its tendency to suck burning embers straight out of the firebox along with the exhaust, wasting fuel.

The new boiler design made the Rocket the most powerful locomotive built to date, capable of speeds of thirty miles-per-hour, on a par with the highest speeds humans had ever experienced (on the back of a galloping horse). A London reporter who witnessed the unladen Rocket whizzing by wrote that “[s]o astonishing was the celerity with which the engine, with its apparatus, darted past the spectators, that it could be compared to nothing but the rapidity with which the swallow darts through the air. Their astonishment was complete, every one exclaiming involuntarily, ‘The power of steam is unlimited!’”[23]

Stephenson’s Rocket [National Railway Museum, UK / CCA 4.0].

Despite Rocket’s success, the centrality of the Stephensons to the history of the locomotive was more contingent than necessary, resulting from George’s central place in the development of two of the most important early lines (the Stockton and Darlington and Liverpool and Manchester). Ever since the burst of new designs in the 1810s, stimulated by the high price of horse feed, Britain had sustained multiple lines of locomotive development, and the basic skills required were familiar to anyone with experience in boiler and steam engine design. Hackworth’s Sans Pareil was almost as good as Rocket and also saw service on the Liverpool and Manchester line.

In 1831, the Liverpool and Manchester carried 445,000 passengers and 54,000 tons of cargo. The turnpike roads and canals along the line suffered a sharp decline in revenue and had to lower their charges. The former stagecoach lines between the cities became instantly defunct. The steam railway had proved its economic worth, and by 1837 Britain could boast eighty railway companies and a thousand miles of track.[24]

A train on the Liverpool and Manchester railway, crossing the peat bog of the Chat Moss.

Still, the question was not altogether settled. For another fifteen years or so, entrepreneurs put forward a variety of alternative means of transport: several tried to revive the idea of steam road carriages, others promoted atmospheric railways that would operate by creating a vacuum on one side of the carriage. Canal owners were especially assiduous in searching for some other way forward that would not obviate their investments: barges pulled by locomotives on the tow path, barges pulled by paddle or screw steamboats, a tug that pulled itself along rails attached to either side of the canal. None of these could match the speed of the railway locomotive, and all struggled with the problem of locks.[25]

By the early 1850s, railways carried more cargo in Britain than the canal system. Steam railways had spread across the United States and much of continental Europe, though European rails tended to follow a state-led development model, in contrast to the helter-skelter private buildout in the Anglo-American sphere.

Despite talk among railway visionaries of unifying city and countryside, the railway tended to strengthen the cultural and economic centrality of the urban centers. Traffic between cities increased rapidly: that between Liverpool and Manchester quadrupled. Horse travel did not disappear, but was repurposed: local coaches and omnibuses multiplied to serve the flood of urban visitors. The products of the country became more readily available to the city than ever before: cows arrived in cattle cars on the hoof, to be butchered on site for urban middle- and upper-class customers; fresh milk, once a dubious prospect within a place like Paris, now arrived daily by railcar. Long-distance journeys across the whole of Britain became possible within a single day: in 1763 the stagecoach from London to Edinburgh took two weeks; by 1835 the roads and coaches had improved enough to do it in forty-eight hours; but in 1849 a rail passenger could make the journey in just twelve hours. [26]

Neither canals nor turnpikes, important as they were to the development of Europe’s economy, had transformed everyday life to the same degree as the steam locomotive. The revolution was closed. Rails had won.


[1] Burton, 206-207, 229.

[2] The builder of this engine, John Steel, died a decade later in a steamboat boiler explosion in France. Robert Young, Timothy Hackworth and the Locomotive (London: The Locomotive Publishing Company, 1923), 35-40.

[3] From Oswald Dodd Hedley, Who Invented the Locomotive Engine? (London: Ward and Lock, 1858) to Robert Young, Timothy Hackworth and the Locomotive (London: The Locomotive Publishing Company, 1923).

[4] G. A. Sekon, The Evolution of the Steam Locomotive 1803-1898 (London: Railway Publishing Company, 1899), 10-11.

[5] Anthony Dawson, Before Rocket: The Steam Locomotive up to 1829 (Horncastle: Gresley books, 2020), 32-34.

[6] Samuel Smiles, The Lives of George and Robert Stephenson (London: The Folio Society, 1975 [1874]), 73.

[7] Sekon, 12; Dawson, 44.

[8] Young, 56; Peter M. Solar and Jan Tore Klovland, “New Series for Agricultural Prices in London, 1770-1914,” Economic History Review 64, 1 (2011), 77. Even after the end of the wars in 1815, protectionist Corn Laws followed, keeping prices artificially high.

[9] Smiles, 34-40.

[10] Smiles, 43.

[11] Smiles, 47-54.

[12] Smiles, 80-84.

[13] Andrew Dow, The Railway: British Track Since 1804 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Transport, 2014), 4-10.

[14] Dow, 20-21.

[15] William H. Brown, The History of the First Locomotives in America (New York: D. Appleton, 1871), 36-37. James Anderson, Recreations in Agriculture, Natural-History, Arts, and Miscellaneous Literature, vol. 4(London: S. Gosnell, 1803), 214. This quote or a similar one is sometimes attributed to Watt’s former patron, John Anderson, but that Anderson died in 1796.

[16] Martin Scriblerus, or, Of the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1727), in The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift  vol. 4 (London: C. Bathurst, 1754), 174.

[17] William Weaver Tomlinson, The North Eastern Railway: Its Rise and Development (Newcastle: Andrew Reid, 1915), 110-111.

[18] Francis T. Evans, “Roads, Railways, and Canals: Technical Choices in 19th-Century Britain,” Technology and Culture 22, 1 (January 1981), 17-18.

[19] Gavin Weightman, The Industrial Revolutionaries: The Making of the Modern World, 1776-1914 (New York: Grove Press, 2007), 128.

[20] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey : the Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986 [1977]), 6.

[21] “Canals and Rail-Roads,” The Quarterly Review 31 (London: John Murray, 1825), 362-369.

[22] Weightman, 133-34.

[23] Quoted in Ian Petticrew,                                                                         Notes and Extracts on the History of the London & Birmingham Railway , Chapter 12 (https://tringhistory.tringlocalhistorymuseum.org.uk/Railway/c12_locomotive_(II).htm).

[24] Weightman, 134-35.

[25] Evans, “Roads, Railways, and Canals,” 19-21, 26-32; Smiles 234-35.

[26] Dionysus Lardner, Railway Economy (London: Taylor, Walton and Maberly, 1850), 7-11 and 33.

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