Puffing Billy Locomotive

The Puffing Billy Locomotive, developed by William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth, was constructed between 1813-1814. The locomotive was the very first commercial adhesion steam locomotive, and operated at Wylam Colliery between the mines and the River Tyne. 

When Richard Trevithick began his experiments with steam locomotive traction in 1804 at the Pen-y-Daren tramway in South Wales, a genesis of transport was begun. Although Trevithick’s locomotive experiments were successful, it was plagued with one major pitfall, the locomotive failed to gain sufficient traction. This shortcoming empowered opponents of locomotive traction to further discourage the machine.

Christopher Blackett, owner of  Wylam Colliery, was inspired by Trevithick’s experiments, and sought to abandon horse traction in lieu of steam locomotives for his short five mile tramway between Wylam Colliery and the River Tyne. During this time, the Middletown Railway operated using a rack system inspired by Blenkinsop. This system used a cog wheel, allowing the locomotive to gain traction. However, Blackett’s experiments involved adhesion to the rail without a rack system. Wylam Colliery resident engineer William Hedley and blacksmith Timothy Hackworth built a prototype locomotive for Blackett, which included a single cylinder engine with a boiler, which was believed to be called “Grasshopper”. This locomotive gained traction sufficiently, however, the locomotive was not powerful enough to haul the coal chaldron wagons, or climb gradients. However, the success of this locomotive impressed Blackett, thus, he commissioned further locomotives.

Therefore, Hedley and Hackworth constructed two locomotives, Puffing Billy, and the identical “Wylam Dilly”. These engines were to be used on the five mile tramway between the colliery and the River Tyne, replacing horses. Puffing Billy performed satisfactorily, however, the weight of the locomotive was too heavy for the brittle cast iron tramway, causing the cast iron plates to break. Thus, in 1815, the locomotive was rebuilt with ten wheels, however, when the tramway infrastructure was improved, it was again restored to its four wheeled design in 1830. Puffing Billy faithfully served the Wylam Colliery for almost fifty years, hauling chaldron wagons along the short 5 mile railway, until it was retired in 1862, and later purchased by the Patent Office Museum in London (now the Science Museum), where it still resides today. Wylam Dilly is preserved as well, on display at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. It is also believed that phrases such as “Puffing like Billy-o”, and “Running like Billy-o” were derived from the locomotive.


During its construction, Puffing Billy was at the center of many components patented by Hedley. Hedley’s design included the twin vertical cylinders, placed at either side of the boiler, producing power to drive a crankshaft beneath the frame of the locomotive. Gears then drove the wheels, which were connected, addressing the adhesion issue. Puffing Billy was not a particularly quick locomotive in modern standards, as it moved at a pace of 5 mph, about the speed of a horse. The locomotive took on two forms during its operating life, beginning in 1813 as a four wheeled locomotive, and being rebuilt with ten wheels in 1815, after causing damage to the tramway infrastructure. However, in 1830, the locomotive was rebuilt with four wheels, once the tramway was updated, and new edge rails were installed.

Build Date1813-1814
Gauge5 ft
Max Speed5 mph
Driver Diameter39 in
Weight8.25 long tons
Boiler Pressure50 psi
Cylinder Size9 in x 36 in
BuildersWilliam Hedley, Timothy Hackworth

Eight Wheeled Version of Puffing Billy. Public Domain

Impact on Subsequent Engineers

Because of the immense success of the locomotive, various collieries throughout Tyneside began employing steam locomotives on their tramways, transporting coal from the mines to the waterway. Colliery owners began to realize the potential for the new innovation, and many were trusting enough to replace their horses with the traveling engine.

Although Puffing Billy and its identical engine, Wylam Dilly, operated on such a small scale, Wylam Colliery was located in Northumberland, the same county of esteemed locomotive engineer, George Stephenson. The locomotive had quite an impact on Stephenson, as he saw the steam locomotive as a viable entity, and believed it could be expanded on a much broader scale. Stephenson studied various colliery locomotives throughout Tyneside, and utilized these designs on his own locomotives.

Puffing Billy had a profound impact on the future development of the locomotive, as it was the first commercial adhesion locomotive, and operated comparably to the locomotives of the modern day. The components patented by Hedley and constructed by Hackworth helped to shape the modern locomotive as it is known today.

Puffing Billy- Science Museum, London. Public Domain


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