Stephenson’s Rocket

Stephenson’s Rocket is known for its victory at the Rainhill Trials, thus, awarding the locomotive contract for the line to the Stepehenson’s. The locomotive was an 0-2-2 Whyte configuration, with two large driving wheels on the front, and trailing bogey behind.

In the 19th century, the textile industry was booming in the city of Manchester during the early industrial revolution, goods were constantly being transported to the port at Liverpool, the country’s largest port. Additionally, raw materials arriving at the port at Liverpool were sent to Manchester for manufacturing. Prior to the railway, these goods were transported by road, which was usually quite treacherous, as the roads were in disrepair and accidents were prevalent. Water transport between these two locations was provided via the Mersey and Irwell Navigation, the Bridgewater Canal, and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, however, these waterways developed a monopoly of transportation of cotton between the two cities, and were price gouging shippers.

With the recent completion of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, and the establishment of locomotive manufacturer, Robert Stephenson & Company in Newcastle, locomotive traction was becoming commonplace in northeastern England. With the Stockton & Darlington’s successful enterprise, a railway was soon considered to connect Liverpool and Manchester. George Stephenson was appointed engineer on the line in 1826, and vehemently encouraged the directors to utilize locomotive traction on the line, as it was originally slated to be worked with stationary steam engines. Stephenson demonstrated the effectiveness of locomotive traction to the directors of the railway, thus, it was decided to hold a competition as to whether locomotive traction would be utilized.

This competition would be called the “Rainhill Trials”, and took place on a piece of flatland at Rainhill, Lancashire. Judges for the competition included John Urpeth Rastrick, Nicholas Wood of Killingworth Colliery, and John Kennedy of Manchester. These trials proceeded for nine days, attracting over 10,000 spectators eager to witness the engineering of the future. Five locomotive designers were to compete in the competition, the Stephenson’s “Rocket”, Timothy Hackworth’s “Sans Pareil”, Timothy Burstall’s “Perseverance”, John Ericsson and John Braithwaite’s “Novelty”, and Thomas Shaw Brandreth’s “Cycloped”. However, Cycloped was nothing more than a horse running on a belt, and was not steam powered.

The rules of the trials demanded speed instead of hauling power, thus, Stephenson sought to construct a lightweight locomotive capable of reaching high speeds. Many entrants in the trials were concerned with adhesion, and believed wheel slip would be an issue, however, due to the light load the locomotive’s had to haul, this was not a prevalent issue to Stephenson. Rocket’s lightweight 0-2-2 design,and multi-flue boiler allowed the locomotive to achieve these measures, and therefore, win the competition, awarding the Stephenson’s £500, and the contract to build locomotives for the railway. Citing Rocket’s success, Stephenson built a subsequent Rocket type locomotive called Northumbrian, which was constructed with the same design elements. Rocket remained on the Liverpool an Manchester Railway until 1836, when it was sold to the Lord Carlisle Railway for £300, where it remained in service until 1862. Afterwards, it was donated to the Patent Office Museum in London, which is the Science Museum in the modern day.

It is uncertain whether George or his son Robert were responsible for the construction of Rocket. George was engineer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and was living in Liverpool, while his son Robert oversaw the construction of the locomotive in Newcastle. However, it is believed that Robert consulted his father on many aspects of the locomotive, and impacted many of the decisions made by his son. Nevertheless, the locomotive christened a new era of railway traction, and became the example of subsequent locomotive for over one-hundred years.

According to the Science and Industry Museum located in Manchester, Rocket’s name is derived from a military device designed by Sir William Congreve, and were utilized in various conflicts such as the Napoleonic wars and the War of 1812. These were technologically advanced during the early nineteenth century, and were believed to travel long distances. Due to its innovative and high speed nature, Stephenson named his locomotive accordingly to encompass these traits into his invention. Moreover, these military devices eventually developed into introducing space travel to the world in the 20th century. It is believed that the Rocket and the steam locomotive in general was considered similar to today’s space age, as subsequent Stephenson locomotives were named after various planets and stars.


The “Rocket” was the very first 0-2-2 locomotive design, and was much lighter than most of its competitors. Much of the locomotive’s success is attributed to its even weight distribution on both axles, both the driving wheels and the trailing bogies. This allowed Rocket to have a higher axle load, even though it was much lighter than other locomotives in the competition.

Prior to the Rocket, many early locomotives housed a single boiler flue tube. However, Stephenson engineered Rocket with a multi-flue boiler, which had the ability to both raise boiler pressure more rapidly, and increase maximum locomotive speed. Instead of one large flue, twenty-five small flues were sent through the firebox, boiler, and into the blast pipe, ultimately sending the gases from the firebox through the chimney. One exception prior to Rocket was Stephenson’s “Lancashire Witch”, which was constructed with a double flue boiler. The multi-flue boiler allowed the locomotive to operate more efficiently, as prior locomotives with single flue boilers utilizing a blast pipe created such suction that cinders would be throw from the smokestack, therefore increasing fuel consumption and decreasing efficiency.

Rocket included a double walled firebox that was separate from the boiler, another industry standard introduced by Stephenson. The locomotive burned coke as it adhered to regulations and was cleaner to burn than coal. Additionally, coal burning locomotives were not introduced until the 1860s, as various advances in firebox technology were prevalent throughout much of the Victorian Era.

Rocket also had a significant influence on locomotive cylinders, as Rocket’s were nearly horizontal whereas previous locomotives’ cylinders were vertical. Additionally, after the Rainhill Trials and various years of service, Rocket was modified to have completely horizontal cylinders, which became the industry standard for steam until dieselization. Another industry standard begun by Rocket was the addition of the locomotive’s pistons being directly connected to the driving wheels, instead of connecting rods.

BuilderRobert Stephenson & Co
Date Built1829
Whyte Configuration0-2-2
Driver Diameter4ft 8 1/2 in
Trailing Bogey Diameter2 ft 6 in
Axle Load2.65 tons
Weight4.3 tons
Boiler Pressure50 lbf
Cylinder Size8 in x 17 in
Max Speed30 mph


Rocket is considered by many to be the blueprint of which all forthcoming locomotives were to follow. It’s multi-flue boiler, horizontal cylinders, and pistons connected directly to the driving wheels became standard in locomotive design and development. Rocket’s design and flawless performance impressed thousands at the Rainhill trials, exemplifying the importance locomotive’s would have on the future of transportation. The success of Rocket and the Liverpool and Manchester as a whole, encouraged advancement of locomotive design, making railways the ideal mode of transportation for well over a century. It is important to note the impact Rocket had on the landscape of England and the world, as it encouraged the rest of the world to adopt the technology.

Rocket survives today, and is currently owned by the Science Museum in London, although it is prone to travel throughout the country to various exhibits. For more information about the legendary Rocket, visit the Science Museum‘s website.



Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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