Who Invented the First Locomotive?

Who invented the first locomotive? Richard Trevithick of Cornwall, England is the individual responsible for successfully building and operating the world’s first steam locomotive on the Pen-y-Daren tramway in South Wales, United Kingdom. Trevithick is most remembered for his experiments with high pressure steam.W

Early Life

It was in the area of southwest England known as Cornwall, where a spry young engineer would impart his knowledge on a machine that would shape the world’s future. This ingenuous invention,called the steam locomotive, would prove to be the world’s most advanced piece of machinery at the time.

Born to coal mine “Captain”, Richard Trevithick Sr., and Ann Teague, young Richard was one of six children, and the only boy in the family. Trevithick’s father was rigorously involved in mining, and earned the rank of “Captain”. Additionally, his father witnessed the operation of the Boulton & Watt engines when he visited their manufacturing facility in Birmingham. Young Trevithick was drawn towards engineering because of his father’s ventures, as the steam engine developed by engineer Thomas Newcomen was working at the mine at which his father was employed.

At a young age, Trevithick began teaching himself about the workings of steam engines, and, in part, rejected formal schooling. Young Trevithick’s demeanor was similar to the other early railway and engineering pioneers, one who would gain experience through repetition and hands-on training, rather than formal schooling.

During Trevithick’s youth, Scottish inventor James Watt began experimenting with the steam engine, and eventually derived a successful design. In order to deter any competition, Watt patented almost every component of the engine, and was sure to take swift legal action if the patent was disregarded. What made Watt’s engine superior to the Newcomen engine already in production, was the addition of a separate condenser, which helped the engine consume fuel more efficiently. To exploit the use of the separate condenser, fellow engineer, Matthew Boulton partnered with Watt, and thus, formed their company in Birmingham.

The Boulton & Watt engine was in use throughout Cornwall, however, they were constructed at their “SoHo” facility in Birmingham. As a result of the strict patents,Boulton & Watt’s partnership transformed into a monopoly, therefore discouraged aspiring engineers from advancing on the machine. Engineers and collieries in Cornwall responded negatively on the Birmingham company’s monopoly, as many Cornish collieries preferred to patronize fellow engineers within the county.

The agreement to operate a Boulton & Watt engine discouraged many collieries initially,  even Trevithick Sr. was hasty on implementing the Boulton & Watt engine, as the pair asserted total control over its workings. Boulton & Watt requested pay on a percentage of the income the machine produced, in addition, they controlled the operations of the engine entirely.  However, as this dispute was ongoing, young Trevithick was nearing the end of his schooling, and he and other prominent engineers were eager to challenge the monopoly with their own ingenuity.

Throughout the Boulton & Watt monopoly, many Cornish engineers expressed their resentment, and began constructing their own example of the steam engine. One engineer in particular was Jonathon Hornblower, however, his example caused resentment from James Watt, who believed his patent was exploited. Watt made quite a spectacle of the affair, however, deemed that Hornblower’s engine was inept, and did not pose as a threat. Although, Hornblower was not deterred, as he continued to perfect his engine, and challenged the Boulton & Watt monopoly. Hornblower’s experiments with high pressure steam led to various examples of successful engines that were sold to various collieries throughout Cornwall, however, much to the Chagrin of Watt, who considered taking legal action. According to Anthony Burton’s book “Richard Trevithick, Giant of Steam”, he stated that Watt believed this was complete “malice” towards his patents. Thus, a battle ensued between Watt and the Cornish miners to disassemble the monopoly, and establish a new engine in Cornwall.

The Cornish Engineer

One of the most enthusiastic of these engineers was young Richard Trevithick, who was a captain during this time, and was greatly respected by his subordinates. Trevithick was a man of muscular build, who was considered a giant for this time period, measuring well over 6 feet tall. Trevithick partnered with fellow Cornish engineer, Edward Bull, who together developed a working steam engine, undeterred by Watt’s various legal notices. Even under Watt’s various injunctions, Trevithick and Bull installed their engine in various collieries throughout Cornwall. However, due to the various legal implications by Watt, it was impossible to continue to advance Bull’s engine. Although Trevithick’s tribulations in his dispute against the Birmingham firm were to no avail, the young engineer met prominent Cornish engineer, Davies Gilbert, who invoked his scientific prowess on Trevithick, further enhancing his already impressive machines.

In 1796, the Boulton & Watt firm experienced a shift in management, as James Watt Jr. was placed in lieu of his father. However, Trevithick found no relief under the new management, as Watt’s son proved to be even more vexing then his father. Nonetheless, although the two sides often quarreled, they mutually respected each other’s engineering abilities.

During his tenure with Bull, Trevithick was in relations with the Harvey’s of Hayle, of which supplied the iron castings for Bull’s engines. It was within the Harvey family that Trevithick would encounter his future wife, Jane Harvey. However, the pair did not get married until Trevithick’s father passed, as he was then given his father’s work, and considered to be of higher stature.

Trevithick experienced much support from his wife, as her devotion allowed him to spend his waking hours at the mines, experimenting with various machines. One of the most prominent was the plunger pump, which spent many faithful years working at various sites around the country, however, not in Cornwall due to lack of water sources. Although the plunger pump did not quite return the profit expected, it proved that Trevithick could design a working engine to a high standard.

Upon the turn of the nineteenth century, the Watt patent had expired, allowing engineers to construct their own designs without the threat of legal implications. This opened a window of opportunity for Trevithick, as more advanced engines could now be produced, not just throughout Cornwall, but throughout the country. Although the Boulton & Watt engines accomplished the task at hand, the various patents hindered advancement and innovation within the industry.

During the Boulton & Watt era, low pressure steam was commonplace, as well as a separate condenser, of which, the company made the norm. Trevithick believed there was an alternative to this operation, and with the help of Davies Gilbert, he engineered a high pressure steam engine, that instead of using a separate condenser, released the steam into the atmosphere. This engine gained traction, especially in Cornwall, as many collieries throughout the county installed them. Boulton & Watt did not take kindly to the new engine, as they believed it was inferior to their engines. Boulton and Watt had made engines similar to Trevithick’s in the past, however, they were massive and uneconomical for most operations.

Trevithick’s new engine, coined the “puffer”, led him to believe that further advances could be achieved, included, an engine that moved itself, instead of powering an outside object. He believed it could be used to move people and goods to various places, thus, Trevithick began the invention that would gain him immense fame, the steam locomotive. However, first he experimented with steam carriages for road travel.

Experiments with Road Carriages

Previous to Trevithick, Boulton & Watt’s Cornish representative, William Murdoch, had experimented with steam carriages while working for Boulton & Watt, however, Watt did not see his inventions as a threat, and did not interfere with legal implications. According to Burton’s book, Murdoch was preceded by a Hungarian man by the name of Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, who invented a steam carriage, however, it was clumsy at best, and did not work as intended. Murdoch’s experiments with the steam carriage resulted in a prototype that performed adequately, and delighted the masses, however, only three examples were sold. Although, Murdoch found recognition years later, by introducing gas lighting to Boulton & Watt’s business.

Trevithick’s example proved to be a complex machine, with many manufacturers involved. Financed by his cousin Andrew Vivian, the boiler and cylinder were cast at Harveys, while Jonathan Tyack assembled the machine. Upon completion, the carriage began traveling quicker than walking pace. According to Burton, an individual known as Stephen Williams witnessed the carriage’s first run, and remarked how well it had performed, even over less than ideal terrain. The engine in question took quite an effort to operate, as the driver, in addition to his various duties, had to fire the engine as well. The development of this machine is quite remarkable, as neither Trevithick, nor Gilbert were certain that it would gain enough traction to move on its own. Unfortunately, this steam carriage met a tragic end. Upon placing the machine in its shed, Trevithick failed to put out the flame in the engine, which resulted in the machine being destroyed by fire, however, Trevithick seemed undeterred to continue his experiments.

Hugh Llewelyn

Upon realizing his success with the steam carriage, both Trevithick and Andrew Vivian journeyed to London, where they sought to patent their steam carriage. The patented steam carriage was slightly improved, equipped with larger rear wheels, among other components. Upon patenting his contraption, Trevithick then began the process of building his new steam carriage, the boiler and cylinder again being manufactured by Harvey’s, and assembled by Jonathan Tyack.

Upon completion, Trevithick and his team took the steam carriage on its maiden run through London, much to the annoyance of the locals and authorities alike. Thus, before long, a movement was in place to ban the steam carriages from the roadways, citing higher roadway repair costs, and its tendency to frighten the horses. In addition, Trevithick was disappointed in the lack of interest in the machine, as he expected to collect various orders. Eventually, the carriage was disassembled, and the engine was used in a stationary operation where it served for many years. Thus, Trevithick decided not to continue his steam carriage project, however, as disappointing as it may have been, the young engineer learned valuable lessons and gained experience for his next great venture, which would prove to alter the way to world operated forever.

Pennydaren Locomotive

In 1803, Trevithick constructed the first railway steam locomotive, coined the “Coalbrookdale” locomotive, after the town in which it was constructed. Later in 1803, Trevithick received a letter from Samuel Homfray regarding the construction of a steam engine for use at his Penydarren iron works in Merthyr Tydfil, located in rapidly expanding South Wales. During this time, canals were the mainstay of transport, and was the primary thoroughfare of shipping materials throughout the country. The Penydarren iron works had constructed a 9 1/2 mile tramway designed for horse haulage, with its main purpose to transport materials to and from the canal. The rails were a mere 3ft in length, and the gauge of the track was flat, allowing the horses to walk along easily. Realizing the potential of this tramway, Trevithick developed the ideal to construct a steam locomotive that could ride on rails, thus, accomplish the same feat as one horse. When the plan was brought to Homfray, he welcomed the plan wholeheartedly, thus, the construction of Trevithick’s steam locomotive began.

Although both Homfray and Trevithick himself were both confident in the locomotive’s abilities, many did not share the same enthusiasm. Richard Crawshay, who requested the construction of the Pennydaren Tramway in order for his ships to have an advantage over his rivals, declared that flat wheels on a flat track would not move, and the locomotive would simply spin in place. This resulted in a wager between Homfray and Crawshay of 500 guinea.

The Pennydaren locomotive was strikingly similar to the road carriage in design, as it employed the use of similar boiler and other various components. Additionally, Trevithick was no longer concerned about the rough ride, as it would be traversing over a level surface. The locomotive completed many successful runs, however, a mechanical failure plagued the locomotive, and it had to be slowly taken back to Pennydaren. On one instance, the locomotive hauled a load of 10 tons along the tramways, and the project was deemed a success. However, due to the sheer weight of the locomotive, the tramway suffered damage due to its brittle iron rails. After the trials at Pennydaren, the locomotive was converted to a stationary piece, which remained in service for many years.

Although Trevithick’s locomotive was not an immediate success, Christopher Blackett of Wylam Colliery purchased a locomotive from Trevithick to be used on the Wylam Tramway. However, upon delivery, the locomotive was deemed too heavy to operate on the wooden rails of the tramway, thus, it spent its operating life as a stationary engine.

Trevithick’s setbacks in the steam locomotive business was not due to an inferiority of design, but rather, the  infrastructure of the early railways could not handle the weight of the locomotives. Although, hope was not lost, as Trevithick yearned to impress the London officials with one final locomotive design. This design differed from the Gateshead and Pennydaren locomotive, as instead of being a stationary engine attached to wheels, this engine was designed to be used on a locomotive, which allowed Trevithick to develop a simpler design.

Hugh Llewelyn

The locomotive was constructed at the Hazeldine iron works, and featured a vertical cylinder, directly connected to the boiler. The setup allowed the locomotive to be driven directly by the rear wheels. Because of Trevithick’s desire to attract customers to his locomotive, he assembled a circle of track in London, and invited interested individuals for a ride for just a shilling. Interestingly, the site of Trevithick’s track is the now current site of London Euston station, the southern terminus of one of the country’s major trunk lines, the West Coast Main Line. This particular locomotive was named “Catch Me Who Can”, by none other than Davies Gilbert’s sister.

The locomotive ran without fail for weeks, however, the track infrastructure eventually failed, as a rail cracked under its weight, thus, it derailed and overturned. Due to the high costs of operating the locomotive, and the cost to fix the track, the locomotive was never re-railed. According to Burton, the locomotive reached a speed of 12 miles per hour, an astonishing speed for the early nineteenth century. This incident intimidated potential customers, resulting in Trevithick receiving no orders for the locomotive. Additionally, many were skeptical of the advantages of the locomotive, as horse drawn rail and roadways have been proven for many years. This final experiment ended Trevithick’s locomotive ventures.

Although Trevithick abandoned his steam locomotive experiments, railways were to hit the headlines once again in 1812. As a result of the Napoleonic wars, it was becoming increasingly expensive to feed the horses, therefore, colliery owners looked towards the steam railway. John Blenkinsop of Middletown colliery partnered with engineer Matthew Murray to introduce steam traction to their feeder railway, which linked the colliery to the Aire and Calder canals. However, the railway infrastructure had not developed since Trevithick’s trials, and cracking iron rail was ever prevalent. Thus, a toothed third rail was added in the middle of the track, with an added grooved wheel included on the locomotive. This allowed the locomotive to have increased rail adhesion without increasing its weight. Essentially, this was the world’s first cog railway. Due to Trevithick’s patents, he would have been given a fee of £30 per locomotive, however, Trevithick had sold his share of the patent due to lack of interest in his locomotives. Unfortunately for Trevithick, this meant that he would receive no commission.

Trials and Tribulations in London

In 1803, Britain entered war with France, as Napoleon was attempting to occupy the British Isles after a year of peace. During this time, Trevithick volunteered in the de Dunstanville corps, however, they believed that his engineering ability was much more useful, as opposed to combat. Recognizing his engineering ability with steam engines, he was given the task of designing an engine for a steam vessel, that would tow the fire boats towards opposing forces. The steam vessel he created did not receive much recognition, however, it opened a new chapter in his career, maritime travel and canal engineering.

Citing his past shortcomings in London, Trevithick realized that canal building was the center of attention in the city. The River Thames was being dredged, therefore, Trevithick believed he could introduce steam power to these workings to increase efficiency. Upon dredging the river, massive rocks were unearthed which posed a threat to the various ships that would traverse the canal daily. After many failed attempts at dismantling the rocks, it was suggested that the recent advances in steam powered machinery may be suitable for the task. Thus, Trevithick, built a high pressure steam engine for this purpose.  It is understood that Trevithick partnered with esteemed civil engineer, William Jessop, to develop the modern machine. Trevithick supplying the high pressure steam engine, while Jessop supplied the remaining mechanisms.

Trevithick’s then moved on to dredging machines, as he oftentimes monitored the process and saw room for advancement. Previous to steam power, horses had powered the dredging machines, which was efficient for a time, however, the new steam technology had its advantages. To increase profits, when dredging the river, the materials were sold to the dredgers to ballast the boats. Trevithick’s inclination to overtake various new projects was prevalent in this stage of his career, as he sought for a way to introduce steam power to these workings as well. After much negotiation with Trinity House, he manufactured various dredging engines that were soon seen in daily workings. However, these engines were considered under powered for the task at hand. Trevithick proposed that he could produce a more powerful engine, however, the financial implications in order to achieve this would be astronomical, therefore, Trinity House relinquished themselves of his services. This failure was blamed on Trevithick’s lack of experience with canals, as it proved much different than constructing engines for use on land.

Thames Tunnel

Although Trevithick’s dredgers were underpowered, this shortcoming did not deter him from involving himself in other London ventures. During this time, construction of the Thames Tunnel was commencing. Due to the shortcomings of various engineers assigned the contract, Trevithick was called to assist fellow Cornish engineer, Robert Vazie. Although Trevithick had never previously attempted civil engineering, he was not one to shy away from new opportunities. Therefore, Trevithick assisted Vazie and various accompanying engineers on developing a steam powered piles and pumping engines to sink shafts into the riverbed. Because he found much opportunity in London, he convinced his wife Jane to move to London with their children, although she was not immediately fond of the idea.

Trevithick met many challenges with the tunnel project, nevertheless he remained undeterred and rarely backed away from a challenge. However, Trevithick did not encompass the sufficient resources to complete the structure, as the tunnel roof eventually collapsed, rendering the future of the project useless. Although Trevithick was unable to complete the project, his presence encouraged ingenuity and briefly restored the projects progression. The Thames Tunnel was eventually completed in 1843, after the patent of Marc Brunel’s tunnel shield in 1824, which would have prevented the collapse Trevithick experienced.

Trevithick later shifted his interest in maritime operations to the London docks. He analyzed how the workers at the docks were inefficient, and could easily be replaced by a high pressure steam engine. However, due to his various undertakings, he was short on capital to facilitate this venture. Therefore, he sold his portion of his patent for high pressure steam. This turned out to be a mistake on his part, as the income from the patent skyrocketed shortly after he sold his share. However, Trevithick was never prone to settle down and collect his profit, instead, decided to continue inventing.

One of Britain’s largest ports was in the middle of the River Thames, requiring vessels and manpower to bring the cargo to the ships. Trevithick’s  answer to the productivity issue at the docks was what he called the “nautical labourer”, which was a tug type boat in which a high pressure steam engine turned a wheel, propelling the vessel. Additionally, the engine could be unattached from the wheel and attached to an loader to transfer the cargo to the ships. However, this was barred from the docks, as officials cited safety concerns, as they believed the steam engines were fire hazards. Additionally, the Society of Coal Whippers, who represented the union of dock laborers, vehemently opposed Trevithick’s boat. The society threatened him, leading him to be escorted around the docks for his own safety.

After many subsequent ventures in the capital, including iron tanks to hold water in ships, and devices to bring sunken ships up from the depths. These ventures proved profitable for Trevithick, however, his luck would soon turn for the worst. In 1810, Trevithick was gravely ill with typhoid and was out of commission for months on end, as a result, his businesses were being mismanaged. Trevithick returned to Cornwall, and was recovering swiftly from his illness. However, due to meddling business partners in Cornwall, he was soon bankrupt, and had to return to London to rectify the issues. According to Burton’s book, Trevithick and his partners owed £4000. Luckily, Trevithick was relinquished from his debt after handing over 80 to the creditors.

Upon returning to Cornwall, Trevithick and his family were in great disarray. Not only were his finances in a subpar state, his family life was in a bad state as well, as his wife and children were not satisfied with constantly moving place. However, Trevithick’s fortunes were soon to return, as he developed a profitable business in Cornwall, consisting of improving currently operating engines, and developing new engines similar to these rebuilt units as well. Additionally, Trevithick experimented with a new generation of boiler that proved more efficient than any other boiler on the market. This boiler was so successful, several Boulton & Watt boilers were replaced on various machines, more than doubling their efficiency.

Trevithick’s fortunes continued, as he came into contact with prominent land owner, Sir Christopher Hawkins. As a landowner, Sir Christopher was interested in maintaining his various properties, which included various fields of crops. Cultivating the fields during this time proved to be a tedious process, and was only made possible with horses and manpower. However, Trevithick offered to construct a steam powered cultivator, therefore, increasing efficiency and improving production.

By chance, Trevithick was then approached by a man named John Wright, who sought Trevithick’s talents to install a steam engine in his sailing boat. This experiment was successful, as after much testing, the boat was employed in regular service whisking passenger between Yarmouth and Norwich. The boat was named the experiment, and was later accompanied by the Telegraph. However, the Telegraph met an unfortunate end, when a boiler explosion caused nine fatalities, however, due to operational error and not Trevithick’s engines.

With a renewed sense of worth, Trevithick was now profiting from his many ventures in Cornwall, and in a sense, was more productive than ever before. He had restored his fortune and rekindled his relationship with his family.

Business Ventures Abroad

Trevithick found new opportunity in South America in the country of Peru, after a man named Francisco Uville visited Cornwall from Peru, looking to use Trevithick’s engines for his mine. Currently, Boulton & Watt engines were employed at the Peruvian mines, however, they were severely under powered. Having known about Trevithick’s high pressure engine, Uville journeyed to England and purchased a Trevithick engine. The engine’s performance was night and day to Watt’s, as it was consistently more powerful. Therefore, Uville placed various orders for Trevithick engines, however, his order was more than he could afford, and attempted to persuade Trevithick into a partnership in Peru. Nevertheless, Trevithick eventually found himself in Peru, as the various engines he had sent to the Andes were not being assembled correctly, most were simple rectifications that he could sort. Therefore, he set out for Peru, and upon arrival was stunned by the steepness of the mountains, and the narrow path of which his engines were being transported.

Ben Revell

Upon his arrival, the engines that he had sent were in poor mechanical condition. In addition to his engines at the silver mines in the Andes, he also produced several engines for the Peruvian mint, which proved efficient and reliable. Although Trevithick initially began his Peruvian ventures in the mining sector, the engines at the mint actually proved more successful than those in the mines.However, due to war showing its prevalence in the country, Trevithick faced confrontations by both sides of the opposition. Wartime eventually resulted in the destruction of the mining engines, therefore, he was forced to leave £5,000 worth of ore that was due to be shipped home to England. It is important to note that if war did not impede Trevithick’s ventures, he would have had abundant success.

Trevithick then found himself supervising various different mines throughout South America, most notably Costa Rica, in which he was given various responsibilities by James Gerard, a Scottish man who sought to establish various mines throughout the country. However, amidst a vociferous legal battle, he and Gerard returned home.

Return to Cornwall

Before boarding the ship back home, Trevithick, Gerard, and several others made a trecherous journey across Costa Rica and Panama, in order to reach the docks at Cartagena, Columbia, but upon his arrival at the dock, Trevithick had no funds to pay for his passage back to England. However, by sheer coincidence, a fellow engineer, Robert Stephenson was present at the docks, as he was returning to England after attempting to establish business in South America. Therefore, Stephenson gave him 50 to pay for his trip. Although Trevithick and Stephenson were both returning to England, both boarded different ships, as Stephenson reached England via New York, whereas Trevithick’s trip took him home via Jamaica.

Upon Trevithick’s return to Cornwall, his children were now grown, and the first intercity railway was being built by George Stephenson, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. Upon his return, his old partner Davies Gilbert was skeptical of what he had accomplished during his time in South America, additionally, he told Trevithick his plunger engines were not performing as well as once imagined,and lacked in sales. Additonally, the Cornish Boiler he had invented years before was never patented, therefore, Trevithick received no return.

His wife Jane and his family were living with Henry Harvey, Jane’s brother, and his son Francis was a teenager. Prior to returning home, Trevithick did not write to his family to alert them, in fact, he rarely had contact with them in any respect, during his eleven years abroad. Trevithick imagined he could resume his family life where he had left off, however, it soon became known that he had to start from scratch.

For the latter part of his life, Trevithick built and patented many different types of machines ranging from marine and dock engines, and even trying his hand at constructing arsenal for the armed forces. However, the only profitable venture he encountered was a heating system, of which was initially installed in the home of Davies Gilbert. After an argument with his brother-in-law Henry Harvey, he set out for London hoping to find success at the docks. However, he began feeling ill, and had trouble breathing. In April of 1833, Trevitihick was bed ridden, and past away alone on  22 April 1833.

Unfortunately, throughout Trevtihick’s life, he did not receive the recognition he deserved for his inventions. Trevithick was never a man of formalities, and oftentimes did not patent his inventions, therefore, he received little return on his work. Additionally, many of his inventions, such as the steam locomotive and steam ship, did not gain traction until after his death. Although Trevithick did not receive ample return for his contributions to the world of transport and engineering, his contributions cannot be taken lightly. His contributions to high pressure steam shaped the future of both transport and engineering, thus, his legacy will live on forever.


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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