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  Inside Out - South West of England: Monday January 5, 2004


Richard Trevithick
The bicentenary of a gigantic engineering achievement

In celebration of the bicentenary of an engineering invention, Inside Out looks at the key achiements of Richard Trevithick.

February 21st 1804 was a momentous day in the history of rail travel.

The "Penydarren" (brainchild of Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick) became the first locomotive ever to haul a load on rails the nine and a half mile journey from Merthyr Tydfil to Abercynon in Wales.

The "Penydarren" locomotive
The "Penydarren" as much a leviathan as Trevithick

The engineering genius of Richard Trevithick was immense, and, in every way, Richard Trevithick was a giant of a man.

At 6ft 2in he was known as the "Cornish Giant" and, at the young age of 18, could throw a sledge hammer over the top of a railway engine house.

It was while working with his father, at the Wheal Treasury mine in Cornwall, he first showed a talent for engineering. He made improvements to the mine's Bull Steam Engine and was eventually promoted to engineer of the Ding Dong mine at Penzance.

The locomotive era

His engineering talents were further harnessed when he developed a high-pressure engine to raise the ore and refuse from mines in Cornwall and South Wales. But he also began experimenting with the idea of producing a steam locomotive.

Pressure gauge
The heat was always on with his experiments

A miniature locomotive came first and by 1796, he had produced one that worked.

He made the boiler and engine into a single unit; hot water being put into the boiler with a red hot iron inserted into a tube below. This caused steam to rise and the engine set in motion.

Trevithick went on to try and manufacture a much larger steam road locomotive and on Christmas Eve, 1801, he used it to take seven friends on what was perhaps the very first "joy-ride".

The "Puffing Devil", as it became known, could only travel short distances as it was unable to keep up steam for very long. The principle behind the drive was simple - a cylindrical horizontal boiler with a single horizontal cylinder set into it.

The "Penydarren"
This was the cutting edge of engineering of its time

The piston was propelled in and out of the cylinder by pressure of steam and was linked by piston rod connected to a crankshaft bearing a large flywheel.

Unfettered enthusiasm

The lack of travelling distance did not deter Trevithick. Nor did the lack of enthusiasm of London scientists.

Trevithick succeeded in getting sponsorship in 1803 from a company named Vivian & West.

After a short honeymoon period in London between Trevithick and the company, the new locomotive hit insurmountable technical problems which prevented it pulling any carriage at all.

It was because of this that Vivian & West and Trevithick parted company.

But, being the tenacious man he was, Richard Trevithick quickly found another benefactor in Samuel Homfray, the owner of the Penydarren Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil.

Richard Trevithick
Despite all his 'vision', he died a penniless man

And so it was that in 1804, Richard Trevithick was to make his mark with his Penydarren locomotive.

Top speed

With its single vertical cylinder, 8 foot flywheel and long piston-rod, it managed to haul 10 tons of iron, 70 passengers and five wagons from the ironworks at Penydarren to the Merthyr-Cardiff Canal.

It reached speeds of a staggering five miles an hour. But it only ever made three journeys. The cast iron rails, on which it ran, broke on each excursion. The project then came to an abrupt end.

Christopher Blacket, who owned the Wylam Colliery in Northumbnerland became Trevithick's employer, and as such employed his engineering prowess too.

Blacket had a five mile wooden rail line from the Wylam Colliery to the River Tyne on which pit ponies hauled the coal.

It was Blacket's hope that the Wylam locomotive, that Trevithick had developed, would change all this too.

But it was so heavy; it couldn't be used on the wooden track.


Now without financial backing, Trevithick abandoned plans to develop a steam locomotive.

Two pound coin
The Royal Mint have commemorated Trevithick

Instead he became motivated by the money he could make developing a steam dredger that extracted waste from the Thames riverbed.

Other engineering pioneers such as George Stephenson argued that Trevithick's early trials were fundamental to the development of locomotive travel, as he continued to experiment with new ideas.

However, all the trials, experiments and developments failed to receive significant financial backing, and Richard Trevithick died in extreme poverty at the Bull Inn, Dartford, on 22nd April, 1833.

See also ...

Inside Out: South West
More great stories

On the rest of the web
The Trevithick Society
Trevithick 2004
Trevithick Day
Trevithick Trust
World Wide Wales

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