30 July 2008

Famous People: The Stephensons

By Michelle Styles

The modern world owes a great debt to a self made English man and his son. Although George Stephenson did not invent the railway or the locomotive, he was directly responsible for the creation of the public railway in the world and his technical improvements enabled the locomotive to become a workable reality. His efforts proved that steam engines could provide reliable transport and he pioneered many of techniques of railway building. Later his son, Robert, improved on his father's work and along with Isambard Kingdom Brunel provided most of the transportation infrastructure for Great Britain. A variety of his bridges including the High Level bridge at Newcastle remain in use today.

Born into abject poverty in 1781, George Stephenson is a classic example of 'self help' and betterment. One of his earliest jobs at age ten was that of a 'picker' or someone who picks the debris from coal. By age fourteen he had become a horse driver at a pit in Black Callerton. When he was around 18, he began to gain a reputation for his ability to mend machinery. Also around this time, he started to go to night classes and within a few years had achieved basic literacy skills, but he received no formal education and his engineering skill came through practical application. George Stephenson was simply interested in machines and how they worked.

Despite or perhaps because of his own lack of education, he became determined that his only son, Robert would have the best education available. Among other things, he ensured that Robert joined the Literary and Philosophical Society and had access to its extensive library. In 1816, father and son built a sun dial which now adorns their old home of Dial Cottage, West Moor, near Killingworth.

In 1815, George Stephenson became embroiled in a controversy with Sir Humphrey Davies. Both had invented safety mining lamps independently of each other. Davies accused Stephenson of stealing his idea because he did not believe that a man without formal education was capable of creating such a thing and a furious row erupted. After an inquiry, Stephenson proved that he had indeed created his own lamp. Despite the Davy lamp being popular elsewhere, the Geordie lamp with its glass cylinder around the flame was in the North East. One of the original geordie lamps is on display at the Lit and Phil.

However, George Stephenson made his biggest mark with locomotives and railways. In 1814, he created one of the first traveling engines--My Lord. He also experimented with various types of iron to make the rails, eventually coming to realize that wrought iron was necessary. In 1821, he served as a consultant to Edward Pease and was instrumental in the construction of the Stockton Darlington railway, the first public railway in the world.

The Rainhill trials of October 1829, cemented both Stephensons’ reputations when the Rocket outperformed all other competitors and was chosen as engine of choice for the Liverpool to Manchester railway. On 15 September 1830 when the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened, George Stephenson was at the controls of the Northumbrian as it pulled a train load of the rich and famous including the Duke of Wellington, Earl Grey and Fanny Kemble. Unfortunately cabinet minister William Husskinson alighted too early and stood in the wrong place. He became the first railway fatality. But despite the tragedy, the railway age had become and railway building mania son took hold. Both Stephensons' fortunes were made.

It is said that Robert Stephenson refused a knighthood after the London to Edinburgh line was opened because his father had never accepted one. George Stephenson became the first president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He died in 1848 near Chesterfield Robert Stephenson worn out from overwork died eleven years later and is buried at Westminster Abbey. Between them, they changed the face of the world.