Saturday, July 25, 2015

George Stephenson Invents an Engine, an Industry, and a Transportation Revolution

Blucher in 1814 was the first steam locomotive operating on flanged wheels on metal rails.

On July 25, 1814 George Stephenson put his first Steam locomotive, a small engine for use hauling coal on the Killingworth Wagonway in England near his home and workshop.  He called the noisy little contraption Blucher after Prussian general Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher who had helped the Duke of Wellington whip Napoleon.  It could haul 30 tons of coal up a hill at 4 mph and was the first successful flanged-wheel adhesion locomotive—gaining traction only from the wheel turning against the rail and not from a cog or other system. 
Steam had been applied to moving coal as early as 1804 by Richard Trevithick  at a colliery at nearby Tyneside and several other engines were built by various men for mines in the Newcastle area.  But none worked so well, so reliably, and so safely—boiler explosions were common—as did Stephenson’s.  The Blücher is now considered the first truly modern steam locomotive and Stephenson the father of an industry. 
Stephenson was born on June 9, 1781 at Wylam, Northumberland.  His father was a fireman on a steam pumping engine in a local colliery and his son entered the mines in the same capacity at the age 17.  Although he had no formal education, he took to the mechanics of the crude engines and began to study at night to improve his condition.  He worked at various capacities in the mines, married, had children, and was left a widower. 
When he repaired a broken engine at Killingsworth in 1811 he was promoted to engine wright and was soon repairing—and improving—pump and winch engines for several pits in the area.  After the successful introduction of the Blucher, Stephenson is believed to have completed 16 other engines of various design.  Not all worked.  At least two had to be withdrawn from service because of defects.  But with every experiment and every engine built, Stephenson learned. 
His new engines were too heavy to operate on traditional wooden rails, attached strips of iron were not durable, and solid cast iron rails were too brittle.  So Stephenson improved the cast iron rails and went to the practice of multiple wheels to better distribute the engines’ weight.  

George Stephenson, up from the pits.

In 1820 be built an 8 mile long railway from Hetton colliery to Sunderland.  Gravity was used on the down slope, but the steam engine provided power on the level and upgrade.  It was the first longer railroad employing no animal power at all. 
In 1825 he was hired by Edward Pease to construct the 25 mile long Stockton and Darlington Railway to bring coal from the mines for market.  Pease also joined in forming the company of Robert Stephenson and Company to manufacture new, more powerful engines for the railroad.  The company built four engines, Locomotion, Hope, Diligence, and Black Diamond.  On September 25, 1825 the new line opened with Locomotion hauling 80 tons of coal and a specially built car for dignitaries, Experiment, the first ever built specifically for passengers.  The dignitaries found themselves hurtling along at an astonishing of 24 miles per hour in one stretch.  The road was built with wrought iron rails with a track gage of 4 feet 8½ inches, which became the standard in the British Empire, the United States, and most of the world.
Stephenson was soon also at work laying out the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first line to connect major cities at some distance and to contemplate regular passenger service. 
He employed now accepted techniques like using grading, cut backs and trestles to keep the road bed as level as possible, and crossing a bog by literally floating the track—something of an engineering marvel.  But he was not assured the contract to build locomotives for the line.  Instead the railroad directors announced a completion.  

Rocket, the first locomotive to operate on a rail line connecting cities at some distance. 
Stephenson’s entry was Rocket, largely designed by his son Robert and the first to use the recent French innovation of a fire tube boiler.  The trial required engines to run 60 miles and weigh no more than 6 tons.  Rocket easily won the competition and Stephenson was a famous man overnight.  The railroad opened on September 30, 1830 with a raft of dignitaries led by the Duke of Wellington on hand.  A parade of trains powered by Stephenson built engines left Liverpool with open passenger cars.  The engines included Northumbrian driven by George Stephenson, Phoenix driven by Robert, North Star driven by his brother, and Rocket. 
The day was somewhat marred when a Member of Parliament foolishly dashed in front of Rocket and was crushed to death.  
Stephenson went on to a lauded and distinguished career both as a civil engineer laying out new lines and as the manufacturer of ever more powerful and efficient engines.  His son  Robert and others contributed to the success of the company. 
The first engines used commercially in America were built at Stephenson’s shops and American designers learned their craft there.  

Since the Brits made a fortune on his locomotives and all of his contributions to the civil engineering of  railroads, it is fitting that they put him on a bank note.  But when he was alive they could not bring themselves to honor the commoner with the thick burr of the north England working class with either a knighthood or a life peerage.
Stephenson died on August 12, 1848 at his home in Chesterfield, Derbyshire a wealthy and honored man.  But despite his contributions to British wealth and power, because of his humble origins he was never extended a Knighthood.

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