George Stephenson

Considered the “Father of the Railway”, George Stephenson was perhaps history’s greatest innovator and engineer, developing the machine that was to shape the future of the industrial revolution. However, it took great strides for Stephenson to achieve this feat, as his family was for the most part, uneducated, and could not supply Stephenson with a solid educational foundation. Joined by his son Robert, the Stephenson’s made some of the most profound advancements in the history of engineering.


Stephenson’s fascination with railways was perhaps prevalent early on in his life, as his residence “Street House” had been a mere 2 yards away from a railway. During this time, the railway was a wooden, horse-drawn, wagon way. From humble beginnings, Stephenson began working at an early age handling farm animals, driving gin horses, and eventually, was employed at the colliery with his father, who was a fireman. Stephenson’s work ethic and dedication was soon recognized, and caught the attention of future locomotive builder Robert Hawthorne. Stephenson’s relationship with Hawthorne proved beneficial, as Hawthorne had called on Stephenson to be the brakeman on his recently constructed Willington Quay winding engine.

Stephenson, although known for his hard working and dedicated demeanor, was  considered conceited by some, especially on his criticism of Robert Hawthorne, as he believed that Hawthorne was against him and sought to overtake Stephenson on many fronts. However, Stephenson prevailed despite this character flaw. Believed to be a result of his view of Hawthorne, Stephenson left Willington Quay and moved his family to Killingworth, where he acted as a brakeman for the Grand Allies. However, after the unexpected move, Stephenson and Hawthorne continued to meet and bash around their ideas for the steam engine.

Tom Bulley

The  Safety Lamp Controversy

For workers in the collieries, danger was eminent. One of the most prevalent dangers was the likelihood of a gas explosion or fire. In the early 19th century, many gaseous explosions and fires plagued the workers, constantly putting their safety at risk. Stephenson, having spent most of his life near the collieries, decided to devise a solution to prevent these dangers. Stephenson along with scientist, Sir Humphrey Davy, were both implementing their own designs for the lamp. It was decided to produce a safety lamp, which would prevent explosions due to the presence of various gasses being emitted from the flame. While Davy performed his experiments of the lamp in a controlled environment, Stephenson went directly into the collieries, specifically, Bob’s Pit, to conduct his experiments, much to the displeasure of the workers.

The controversy began when Davy received great praise for his invention, and received a generous monetary award. Meanwhile, Stephenson’s supporters were outraged, as they believe that he should receive the recognition for the lamp. Amid the outrage, Stephenson was eventually awarded £1,000, however, much less than Davy. Controversy continued amid the discussion of who’s lamp was most effective. The Davy lamp was chosen for most collieries, however, those around Killingworth preferred Stephenson’s, as it was tested and proved in their facilities. The Davy lamp was more commonplace, as many were in disbelief that a colliery man with little educational background could produce a more effective device that a proven scientist.

It was proven that Stephenson’s lamp was more effective, as when his lamp detected gases, it extinguished itself, thus, there were no reports on injury where his devices were in use. However, Davy’s lamp on many occasions did not work as intended, and became red hot, and in one instance, caused a fatal explosion. Perhaps, Stephenson’s knowledge of the gasses and conditions of the mine contributed to this end, as Stephenson conducted his experiments in the collieries, whereas Davy’s lamp was only tested in a controlled environment.

Steam Engine Entrepreneur

Perhaps the first instance of Stephenson’s legacy with the steam engine occurred at Killingworth, where the Grand Allies employed a steam powered atmospheric pumping engine, developed using John Smeaton’s design, which was to keep moisture out of the pithead. However, the design failed and attracted the attention of Stephenson, who was later met by Kit Heppel while analyzing the machine. Heppel, who was a highly acclaimed pit sinker, trusted Stephenson and knew that this engine was his area of expertise. Heppel alerted head viewer, Ralph Dodds, who allowed Stephenson to attempt repairing the engine. According to L.T.C Rolt’s book “George and Robert Stephenson”, upon Stephenson’s examination, the injection water level proved too low, and was raised ten feet, additionally, the steam pressure was was raised from five pounds to ten. Afterwards, the machine operated as intended, and George earned quite a reputation for his work as a result.

Unfortunately, in early 1812, M’Cree, who operated as the engine-wright passed unexpectedly, thus, Stephenson was named as his successor. Because of Stephenson’s expertise in his craft, he worked for many collieries around Tyneside, even those not owned by the Grand Allies. Throughout these various contracts throughout the Tyne Valley, Stephenson improved the lives of many colliery workers, as he introduced systems of rails underground that changed how the coal was transported. Throughout these many feats, he was joined by his son Robert.

Although Stephenson greatly improved the lives of those working in the collieries, the steam engine exponentially increased the risk of smoke and fire. In 1819, a Stephenson designed engine caught fire at Killingworth, setting the coal ablaze. Working in the collieries throughout his life, Stephenson was well aware of the dangers that the workers encountered daily.

Birth of the Locomotive

The evolution of steam traction is a bit foggy, as many inventors were attempting to design the definitive version. This led to many controversies over who was the true inventor of the steam locomotive. Evidence suggested that Richard Trevithick was the father of steam, however, contributions from William Hedley, Timothy Hackworth, and William Brunton were prominent.

The birth of steam traction began in 1804, when Trevithick successfully ran his locomotive on the Pen Y Darren tramway in South Wales. However, the locomotive proved too heavy to ride on the metal plateway, and was eventually converted into a stationary engine. Furthermore, Christopher Blackett of the Wylam colliery ordered a locomotive from Trevithick for use on the wooden Wylam wagon way. However, due to the weight of the finished locomotive, Blackett refused its delivery, stating that it would damage his infrastructure.

During the steam locomotive’s infancy, various colliery owners did not feel it worthwhile to modify their wagon ways for steam traction, as the price to do so would be tremendous. However, during the Napoleonic wars, the cost to feed the horses was becoming increasingly expensive, as it was decided more feasible to supply their motive power with product that they already produce, coal. Thus, further interest was taken in the steam locomotive.

Hugh Llewelyn

The first colliery owner to take interest in the steam locomotive during this time was Charles Brandling, who owned a wagon way between Leeds and the collieries located in Middleton. The locomotive was built in cooperation with John Blenkinsop, and Matthew Murray, which included Blenkinsop’s system of rack propulsion. After much trial and error on deciding how the exhaust should leave the engine, two locomotives of this type, the “Salamanca” and “Prince Regent” began operating on the Middleton Tramway in 1812, hauling coal from the colliery to Leeds. These locomotives proved their worth, as they were reliable and exerted ample pulling power. According to L.T.C Rolt’s book “George and Robert Stephenson”, one steam locomotive could haul the same amount as sixteen horses, at ninety-four tons, traveling at 3 1/2 miles per hour. In the early age of the locomotive, this was a monumental feat.

Further significant contributions to locomotive design came in the form of Chapman’s failed design in which the locomotive traveled along a chain cable, thus, decreasing the overall weight of the locomotive. Although Chapman’s initial design was flawed, he is credited with inventing the bogey, which improved weight distribution and lessened the locomotive’s impact on the infrastructure. Experiments then began, experimenting with smooth wheels on smooth rail, which made its first successful run at Wylam Colliery. Constructed by William Hedley, the locomotive, called the “Wylam Dilly” was similar to Trevithick’s design, and was suitable for operation on the steel Wylam plateway. Wylam Dilly was constructed using four wheels, however, still proved too heavy for the outdated infrastructure of the Wylam plateway. Hedley then converted his later locomotives to an eight wheel design using bogies to lessen the impact on the infrastructure.

While these prominent Newcastle engineers were inventing their versions of the steam locomotive, George Stephenson often visited Wylam colliery to study their creations. The Grand Allies would soon want to experiment with the new technology, and contracted Stephenson to oversee the construction of a locomotive called “Blucher”, which was to operate near the Killingworth colliery. In a matter of months, the locomotives was traveling past Stephenson’s birthplace, West Moor Cottage.

Christian Roland

According to Rolt’s book, this historic feat did not come without controversy however, as Stephenson was named “The Father of the Locomotive Engine”, therefore, sparked criticism from supporters of William Hedley, as well as from Hedley himself. However, Hedley and Stephenson’s locomotives differed, as Stephenson’s included flanged wheels, as Hedley’s included flat wheels on a flanged plateway, similar to what Trevithick had accomplished years prior. Additionally, many of Hedley’s locomotives were failures, except for the Wylam Dilly.

Although Stephenson successfully operated the first flanged wheeled locomotive, “Blucher”, the locomotive had its downfalls. Like many early locomotives, it had insufficient steam raising power, thus, could only operate light loads, as this defect often stranded the locomotive, usually being rescued by a horse.

Like every great inventor in Tyneside, Stephenson continued to tweak his designs, and eventually developed an alternative way to power the wheels, instead of using crankshafts, which was commonplace during the infancy of steam locomotion. Instead, Stephenson decided to connect the driving rods directly to the wheels, thus, creating a simpler mechanism, less prone to failure. Additionally, Stephenson realized the need to lessen the locomotive’s deleterious affect on the wrought iron rails, and decided to implement the “steam spring”, which was similar to Chapman’s bogey. According to Rolt’s book, the steam spring included a vertical cylinder, in which both ends connected to the boiler, with the boiler accounting for much of the locomotive’s frame. This was present in future Stephenson locomotives, until laminated spring technology was available.

Due to Stephenson’s pioneering of Blucher, his name quickly spread throughout Tyneside, attracting the attention of prominent businessman William Losh, who offered Stephenson a position at Walker Ironworks, where Stephenson was to impart his knowledge of steam traction. While working for Losh, Stephenson and Losh developed a new type of rail using malleable iron, which eventually was used on the Killingworth wagonway.

Critics of Stephenson, especially those at Wylam, believed that these innovations did not advance the development of railways. However, both Stephenson’s locomotives and infrastructural advancements were implemented at various railways throughout the north, whereas, the Wylam designs did not leave the colliery. Stephenson’s many achievements would gain him recognition from Edward Pease, who, with Stephenson, would pioneer the world’s first railway, the Stockton and Darlington.

World’s First Locomotive-Hauled Railway

In the early nineteenth century, transporting coal across land was a tumultuous task, especially for the  Auckland collieries attempting to transport their coal to Stockton. Construction of a canal between Stockton and Darlington was the initial plan, and attempts were facilitated to survey the canal by the likes of George Dixon, Robert Whitworth, Ralph Dodd, and George Atkinson, however, the plans never came to fruition. Because railways were the way of the future, the canal advocates faced much opposition from Edward and Joseph Pease, who supported the construction of a railway between the two towns. Many attempts were made for a canal between the two entities, however, a railway was found more feasible, and had the backing of various Quakers. George Overton of Wales, who constructed the Pen-Y-Daren plateway, of which Trevithick ran his first locomotive, was contracted to survey the line, accompanied by his assistant David Davies, who had also surveyed various tramways prior.

Brian Mason

The Stockton and Darlington committee encountered a significant blow to their plans, when wealthy landowners condemned the construction of the railway near their land. This caused Overton to survey the line once again. However, once the second survey was complete, the committee applied to Parliamentary approval, which earned Royal Assent on April 21, 1821 (Rolt). It is also significant that on the same day, George Stephenson had his first meeting with Edward Pease, which many believed Pease invited Stephenson for the historic meeting, much attributed to Stephenson’s experience with railways and locomotive design. After the meeting between Stephenson and Pease, Overton was longer involved in the project, as he believed that the railway should be hauled by horses, contrary to Stephenson, who believed that steam traction was the way of the future. Pease favored this new form of motive power, and was convinced that Stephenson was the engineer who would fulfills the project’s needs.

Pease agreed to allow Stephenson to survey the line to allow for locomotive power. Upon Stephenson’s request, knowledgeable engineers assisted him, including John Dixon, the grandson of George Dixon, who surveyed the proposed canal between Stockton and Darlington in 1768. Stephenson requested the assistance of his son Robert, as his health and well-being was being compromised during an apprenticeship with Nicholas Wood at the Killingworth pits. Together, the Stephenson’s surveyed the proposed line, as Robert’s health improved greatly since leaving the colliery.

In January of 1822, Stephenson’s final plans for the railway were delivered to the committee, and work was to commence immediately. Stephenson’s plan provided significant cost savings compared to Overton’s original route, which was increasingly expensive and less direct. After improving Overton’s designs, especially the passing of the Etherly East Plane, Stephenson designated most of the line to locomotive traction, where the western portion of the route was to be hauled by horses for the time being.

Upon commencing construction of the railway, Stephenson sought to find rail that would sustain the weight of his locomotives. During the surveying of the railway, John Birkinshaw had introduced a new version of wrought iron rails that could support the weight of Stephenson’s locomotives. However, by using Birkenshaw’s rails, he compromised his relationship with Messrs. Losh, Wilson, and Bell, as he was to use their cast iron rails. This decision also hindered his locomotive production, as he had built his locomotives at the facility. This led Stephenson to introduce his famous locomotive shop, Robert Stephenson and Company in Newcastle, to facilitate his future locomotive production.

Throughout his venture, Stephenson received much assistance from influential Quakers such as Thomas Richardson and Samuel Gurney, who had significant influence in London and Norfolk, and attributed to the railway bills passing through parliament with ease. These influential men were impressed by Stephenson’s locomotives, and supported the idea of including steam traction on a portion of the Stockton and Darlington.

At Stephenson’s locomotive shop, he commissioned four locomotives to be built for his railway, #1 Locomotion, #2 Hope, #3 Black Diamond, and #4 Diligence. Additionally, Stephenson requested the construction of stationary steam engines for the steep inclines at Etherley and Brussleton. By September 1825, the railway was ready for operation, and Locomotion brought by road from the Newcastle works to Heighington Lane . The first day of operation on the railway was 26 September 1825, with the grand opening being held the following day. Thousands of onlookers from across the country gathered to see the world’s first public railway in action. The center of this spectacle was Locomotion, as it carried hundreds of engaged passengers towards Darlington, albeit, not without a few delays that were quickly resolved by Stephenson and his crew. Upon arrival, Stephenson and his crew were met with much fanfare, as thousands of people were present to witness the first locomotive hauled train pull into its destination, with many of them in awe of Stephenson’s revolutionary machine. As the celebration came to a close, many knew that this new invention was the way of the future, and would continue to prosper the world in the modern era.

Chartering of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway

Contrary to popular belief, Stephenson was not the first prominent engineer to express interest in a steel thoroughfare between Liverpool and Manchester. Initially, William James was the first to survey a route for the line, and engaged Stephenson’s interest in  the venture, even encouraging Stephenson to use steam traction on the route. James had various railways planned throughout the country, perhaps proving too ambitious, as only one ever came into fruition. However, due to James’ ailing health, Stephenson took charge of the venture, and resurveyed the line in 1824.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway proved to be a monumental feat, as the trajectory of infrastructure required was much greater than the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Additionally, opposition of this railway was prevalent, with many wealthy landowners, primarily, Captain Bradshaw, who had not allowed Stephenson to survey his land. Many canal advocates rallied against the railway as well, as they were well aware of the threat they posed to the canal systems. As a result, Stephenson headed to London to exercise his stance on the railway against the canal supporters. This came to a daunting end for Stephenson, as he was berated on matters such as how he was to support the infrastructure needed for the line.

This outcome was due to Stephenson’s underestimations of the cost and magnitude of the infrastructure, which caused the committee to hire more experienced engineers to spearhead the affair, such as the Rennie brothers. Unfortunately for Stephenson, the Rennie’s were not fond of the Northumbrian gentlemen, and ordered Charles Vignoles as the engineer to re-survey the Liverpool-Manchester line. In fact, the Rennie’s even attempted to oust Stephenson from the project completely. However, Stephenson was given the opportunity to work with Vignoles, and assisted him in surveying the line.

With Vignoles in charge, more accurate documentations of the infrastructural needs were taken, and he successfully took his findings to the parliament. However, Stephenson and Vignoles disagreed on many aspects of the railway’s construction, thus, Vignoles resigned, which allowed Stephenson to employ his own workforce, such as the likes of John Dixon and William Allcard. It is believed that Stephenson continuously argued with Vignoles to persuade his retirement from the project, as he did not want any individual associated with the discouragement of his first survey to receive credit for the railway, of which Vignoles gave in, and left the surveying to Stephenson.  With the noble engineer removed from the project, Stephenson accomplished feats that were said to be impossible, which included the crossing of the Chat Moss bog and Edgehill Tunnel.

During construction of the railway, much debate was to be had in deciding which motive power would be used on the line, whether it be locomotives, stationary engines, or horses. Stephenson sharply opposed stationary engines, as he stated that an issue with the rope could affect traffic throughout the line in its entirety. Many supporters on the board supported horse or stationary engines to power the line, however, many also favored locomotive haulage, especially Henry Booth, who was an advocate of locomotives. Booth suggested the idea of holding a trial to display its advantages, with the winner receiving £500, and the contract to produce locomotives for the railway.

The Rainhill Trials

This event was to be called the “Rainhill Trials”, as it was to be held at Rainhill, due to its level topology. According to Rolt’s book, the guidelines for locomotives entering in the competition must be spring mounted, consume its own smoke, and weigh six tons if designed with six wheels, and 4 1/2 if designed on four. Additionally, locomotives with a weight of six tons was to haul a twenty ton load at ten miles per hour. How many tons that were to be hauled depended on the weight of the locomotive. Finally, steam pressure was to surpass 50 psi. The contest would be judged by J.U. Rastrick, Nicholas Wood, and John Kennedy, it must be noted that Wood was an avid supporter of the locomotive.

After the date of 1 October (postponed to the 6)was set for the trials, Stephenson’s son, Robert began designing his locomotive to enter into the competition, where he would compete against his collegue, Hackworth, and many other influential locomotive designers. Stephenson’s design was to be based on a previous locomotive, called the “Lancashire Witch”, which was slated to be operated on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, however, was transferred south.

For many months, Robert worked on the locomotive to bring to the trials, experimenting with various technicalities to ensure the robustness of the locomotive, and that its operation met the parameters of the trials. Stephenson’s most lucrative competitors in the trials was Timothy Hackworth, who built his “Sans Pareil“, and Messrs. Braithwaite and Erickson who entered the “Novelty” into the competition.

Appropriately named the “Rocket”, and driven by George Stephenson himself, the locomotive performed flawlessly at the trials, allowing crowds of thousands to witness its power and reliability. Initially, “Novelty” was favored, as it impressed with sleek design, however, it suffered a mechanical failure after one run. “Sans Pareil”, built by Hackworth at Shildon, performed well, however, experienced a cracked cylinder. Other competitors included Mr. Brandreth, who is responsible for “The Cycloped”, which was a horse powered locomotive. Additionally, Mr. Burstall, who’s creation “The Perseverance” experienced damage during transport, and failed to compete in the competition, as he arrived on the final day of the event.

The judges unanimously decided that the “Rocket” met all the requirements for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, therefore, it was crowned the victor. It was at this moment that the locomotive had proved triumphant, and the discussion regarding what motive power reigned supreme had come to a close. With this victory, steam locomotives were to be the sole source of motive power on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Additionally, George and Robert Stephenson gained notoriety, more so than the other engineers who had turned a blind eye to the pair. With the Stephenson’s emerging as the victor of the Rainhill Trials, four locomotives built to the design of the Rocket were immediately ordered for the railway to be built by Robert, Stephenson & Co.

The engineering challenges of the railway continued, as now Stephenson had to devise a plan to cross Chat Moss Bog, which was said to be an unattainable feat by other prominent engineers. However, Stephenson prevailed, and crossed the bog by placing the tracks upon a tall embankment, thus, the line was nearing completion. Locomotives continued to be produced in Newcastle including the “Northumbrian”, and revolutionary “Planet”, which was the first locomotives with horizontal cylinders. Eventually, locomotive production was becoming so commonplace, that Robert, Stephenson and Co. could not keep up with demand, thus, the famous Vulcan Foundry was built at Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside.

Conquering engineering feats many believed impossible, the railway began operation on 15 September 1830, the “Northumbrian” making the celebratory first run, with George Stephenson on the footplate. Upon the opening of the railway, an unfortunate event occurred. M.P. of Liverpool, William Huskisson was conversing with a fellow parliament member who was seated in his rail carriage. People began warning Huskisson and a member of the Austrian Parliament that a train was approaching. Unfortunately, the warnings was not heeded in time, and Huskisson was struck by Rocket, and passed later that evening. This tragedy marked the world’s first railway accident.

Despite the hardships of the opening, the following day, scheduled passenger trains began operating between Liverpool and Manchester with 140 passengers on the day’s first train. Stephenson had defied the odds put against himself and his company, and once again prevailed victorious.

Grand Junction Railway

Now well known engineers, George and Robert Stephenson embarked on further successful ventures, the most prominent being the Leicester and Swannington Railway. Built by request of William Stenson, giving the colliery owner the ability to compete with canal traffic, particularly in Nottinghamshire. Engineering this stretch of railway was easily mastered, as the only difficult passage was the construction of the Glenfield Tunnel. The line was completed during the summer of 1833, concluding yet another profitable Stephenson venture.

The Leicester and Swannington Railway gave birth to future opportunities for the Stephensons, as Robert made the purchase of a coal field in Snibsston, one of the terminus points of their railway. Once again facing criticism about their tedious task, the Stephenson’s sunk three shafts, and unearthed coal. Being a seasoned colliery worker, Stephenson knew how to find success in the business, no matter where in the country it may be.

With the country at a less turbulent state, various rail projects that were previously proposed were beginning to take shape. Especially the proposed line from Liverpool to Birmingham, and from Birmingham to London, one of the country’s first major trunk routes, to be called the Grand Junction Railway. After multiple surveys and disputes between George Stephenson and Joseph Locke, it was agreed that Stephenson survey the southern half, and Locke, the northern. These accommodations were implemented, as the board did not want to jeopardize its relations with the pair.

However, this arrangement hindered the efforts of Stephenson, as Locke began contracting out ten mile sections of his territory, while George, attempting to follow suit, only contracted out one section. Impressed with Locke’s progress, they sought to oust Stephenson from the project altogether. However, it was believed that the loss of Stephenson would be significant, and they suggested the pair work the entire line together. Stephenson, having great animosity towards Locke, withdrew himself from the project, allowing Locke to facilitate engineering of the line in its entirety.

Assisting Locke on this monumental feat was Thomas Brassey, who had served under Locke for many years, and was an aspiring young engineer. The Grand Junction Railway was completed in due time, and began operation in 1837, with the “Wildfire” locomotive christening the line. Sights were now set on the London and Birmingham railway, with the hope of establishing a rail connection with the nation’s capital, which would astonishingly be taken up by Robert Stephenson. Later projects to be taken up by Stephenson included the line from Newcastle to Scotland, and from Chester to Holyhead, which both were brought to fruition by his son, Robert.

Later Years

The year 1840 came as an emotional time for Stephenson, as he planned to retire in two years time, relinquishing all his business ventures to his son Robert. According to Rolt, Stephenson planned to purchase between 30,000-40,000 acres of land on the western coast of England, and retire a wealthy man. Stephenson transformed the way of living, not just in Britain, but worldwide. His invention introduced a new era in transportation, and introduced the world to high speed travel. Stephenson is a prime example of an individual who defied all odds to achieve his dreams of a locomotive run railway, working his way up the ranks from the Tyneside pits, to one of history’s most prestigious engineers. In a way, Stephenson’s invention molded the modern era as we know it today, which continues to connect communities throughout the world.

Hugh Llewelyn





Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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