25 May 2011

15 Minutes of Fame: Richard Trevithick

Michelle Styles
When most people think of the railway or even the horseless carriage, they consider it happen long after the beginning of the 19th century. George Stephenson who built the first commericial railway and whose locomotives won the Ranhill trials is sometimes wrongly credited with inventing the locomotive but in reality he owed a huge debt to Richard Trevithick.

In 1801, Richard Trevithick, the son of a Cornish engineer and an engineer himself decided to see if he could improve on James Watt's steam engine. Part of the trouble with the Watt engine was that it used low steam pressure. Trevithick decided to use a much higher pressure and in doing so was able to get rid of the huge boilers and cumbersome condenser. It meant for the first time a truly portable engine could be made.

By the end of 1801, he was road testing a steam road carriage. The inital trials went great until they decided to celebrate. The engine was not shut off properly. And while they were at the pub celebrating, the test engine burnt to a crisp.  Undaunted as he felt it was due to operator error, he tried again. This time, he tried in North London with a working horseless carriage but the roads were too uneven and the machine was difficult to steer. Equally it was thought that it would cost too much to run and who would ever be interested in such a contraption? With no significant backers, Trevithick abandoned his idea of a horseless road carriage and set his sights on the waggonways and using steam along rails as steering would not be such a problem.

Little is known of his first few attempts, although there is a tanlizing clue that a successful travelling steam engine was built in Penydarren for a bet but it broke the iron plate rails. In 1805, Trevithick tried again and built a prototype for Christopher Blackett of Wylam colliery. However, Blacket was using wooden rails and the engine did not work how he envisioned.  Blacket declined to order it.

Trevithick then tried one last go in 1808 when he built 'Catch Me If You Can' for London. It was a circular demonstration track with an engine pulling carriages. It failed to make money and derailed. Nothing of its ilk would  be seen again until the Rainhill trials twenty years later.
 In 1809, Blacket wrote to Trevithick asking him to help design a new engine as he had replaced his track with iron plate. Trevithick declined as he was busy with other projects and did not fancy going up to the North East. How different the world might have been if he had gone!
He continued to work on engineering projects but died penniless in Dartford in 1833.

Later, his contribution to engineering was recognised (including a stained glass window in Westminster Abbey in 1888) but although he is probably the father of modern locomotion, he is nowhere near known as well as he should be.

Michelle Styles writes historical romances for Harlequin Historical in a wide variety of time periods including Regnecy and early Victorian. She is interested in the development of the railway and engineering. Her recent A Question of Impropriety and Impoverished Miss, Convenient Wife revolved around the development of a travelling engine. Her next novel To Marry A Matchmaker features an inventor hero.


Jen B. said...

What an interesting bit of history. Thank you for the post. And, thank you Unusual Historicals for always having such a cool site. I always enjoy the tidbits of history!

Ann Stephens said...

Thanks for a glimpse into the origins of railway engines! I've only taken one train trip, when I was 4 or 5. I've always wanted to try rail travel again. I know quarters are cramped on passenger trains, but they still seem a lot more romantic than airplanes.

Michelle Styles said...

I am pleased you both enjoyed the blog. I found it utterly interesting that a horseless carriage existed before railways. It is sort of a What If moment.

I like taking the train. The local service remains one of the oldest lines in the UK and I love the stations. The quarters are not as cramped as planes. And given the ash cloud problems we had on Tuesday, I was glad that I took the train to London. They now have wifi on the train as well as places to plug my laptop in so I did get work done.