Casey Jones Rail Road Unit of the ATA
1804-2004 200th Anniversary of Trevithick's Penydarren
200TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIRTH OF RAIL LOCOMOTIVES
by Bill Senkus
The history of rail transport can be traced, in the style of James Burke's popular books and PBS "Connections" documentaries, back to Roman times, and beyond. One story that surfaces regularly claims that the width of modern rails in the U.S. was determined by the width of two Roman horses' hind-quarters, and while that claim was long ago debunked, the real story of how mankind got from oxcarts to the bullet-train is no less intricate and fascinating.
The use of wagons mounted on wooden and iron rails evolved in Great Britain and Europe, starting in the 16th century, as a means of moving goods within mines, quarries, and factories, and by 1767 cast-iron rails were being produced. The motive power in those early systems was human or equine, but helped to demonstrate the superiority of rail systems over conventional roadways, most of which were still crude and treacherous.
During the same period, steam power was evolving. James Watt (1736-1819) patented his first stationary steam engine in the UK in 1769. Watt was convinced that the concept could not be adapted to locomotion, and steadfastly opposed all efforts in that direction. This had the beneficial effect of forcing those who disagreed with him to "think outside the box", i.e. develop ideas that did not infringe on Watt's patents, and Trevithick was the most successful of these iconoclasts.
Richard Trevithick(1771-1833), nicknamed "The Cornish Giant" because of his height (6'2"), first developed steam engines in the late 1790's to pump water and other waste from mines. He saw the possibility of using steam engines as motive power for transportation and began developing early locomotives. One of Trevithick's first self-propelled efforts was the Puffing Devil of 1801 (Image from http://www.stanleysteamers.com/turvey1.htm), but its success was hindered by an inability to make sufficient steam, and the poor condition of the roads - these early attempts ran on ordinary roads, not rails. They also had a tendency to blow up, because of the extremely high pressures required to make them practicable, one of Watt's reasons for arguing they were too dangerous.
Samuel Homfray owned an iron works at Merthyr Tydfil in southern Wales, and wanted an efficient way to move iron from his factory to the Merthyr-Cardiff Canal (also called the Glamorgan Canal, little of it remains today) at Abercynon. He bet a competitor 500 guineas (some say 1,000, but in either case an astonishing sum for the time!) that his bright young engineer Richard Trevithick could construct a steam locomotive that would pull a prescribed load over an existing 9-1/2 mile metal tramway. Trevithick's answer was a locomotive named the Penydarren. It weighed seven tons, and had a single vertical cylinder that drove an eight foot flywheel by a connecting long piston rod. On February 21, 1804, the functioning steam locomotive made its first successful trip, hauling five wagons containing ten tons of iron and seventy passengers at a maximum speed of almost five miles per hour. This date and this trip are seen as the birth of locomotive rail transportation.
The most revolutionary feature of Trevithick's 1804 locomotive was the fact that it had smooth wheels operating on smooth metal rails. Until Trevithick's break-through, engineers has said it was impossible to achieve sufficient traction without using gear-like wheels on a slotted track. Trevithick also devised a method of drafting the firebox, via a smokestack, which has been used on steam locomotives ever since.
Penydarren made two more trips, but on all trips the rails fractured and had to be replaced. Although Homfray won the prize (how much of it Trevithick got is not recorded), he concluded that his transportation costs were unlikely to be reduced, and he abandoned the project.
After the Penydarren
Trevithick continued his work on locomotives. In 1809 another of his locomotives, Catch Me Who Can, carried passengers around a circular track in Euston Square, London. This popular novelty operated during the summer of 1808. For a shilling, passengers circled on iron rails at speeds of up to nineteen kilometers an hour. But again the cast iron rails fractured and after two months the circular railway was closed.
Trevithick, though unquestionably a genius, was an inventor, not a businessman, and while he did much to publicize and promote his ideas for steam locomotion, he left it to others to translate the concepts into viable commercial products, and gained little more than brief fame for his efforts. He moved to South America for a while to try his luck there, failed again, and returned to Great Britain.
Efforts by Trevithick's friends in 1828 to have him granted a pension by the House of Commons failed, and he died in poverty in 1833, though legends of his penniless death and burial in an unmarked pauper's grave are exaggerations. In fact, when he died on April 22, 1833, at the Bull Inn at Dartford, in Kent, England, the pawning of his gold watch paid for a funeral as well as a simple marked grave.
Rail systems continued to evolve in the UK, still almost exclusively in connection with the movement of heavy freight from mines and factories to nearby ports and shipment points, and still powered by horses. George Stephenson (1781-1848) is generally credited as the first to champion successfully the construction of public railroads over longer distances, and for transportation of people as well as commercial goods using steam power. On September 27, 1825 he demonstrated his state-of-the-art steam locomotive, Locomotion, pulling a train of 34 wagons and coaches heavily laden with dignitaries, enthusiasts, flour, and coal, and running on the newly-laid tracks of the Stockton & Darlington Railway.
By 1835 steam and rail technology had evolved to the point where regularly-scheduled passenger trains drawn by steam locomotives were running on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, and the era of the railroads had begun in earnest.
Shortly before his death Richard Trevithick wrote to a friend:
Today Trevithick is recognized as an engineering genius who first showed that a railway propelled by a steam locomotive was a viable technology - it is on his work that all subsequent steam locomotion development stands.
Trevithick on Stamps
Over the years there have been, by my count, twenty-seven postal products - stamps or sheetlets or souvenir sheets - issued to honor Richard Trevithick (through 1999, as listed in ATA Handbook World Railways Philatelic). Most show the Penydarren, a few the Catch-Me-Who-Can. One or two show drawings of other locomotives he designed. Above are links to scans of all of them through 1999, when I stopped collecting. My favorite is - you guessed it - one of the Leaders of the World stamps, shown at the top of this article, depicting Richard Trevithick's first successful locomotive, the Penydarren during its first trials. (The twenty-eighth stamp above, Guyana 3408, was issued to honor Trevithick's grandson, who was also an engineer, and I think it's safe to say this man would not have been so honored, had his grandfather not been famous, so in a sense this honors the elder Trevithick as well.)
On January 12 of 2004, Great Britain issued a set of "Classic Locomotives" stamps in honor of the Penydarren bi-centennial, though none pictured any of Trevithick's engines. Isle of Man issued a set of stamps called "Power of Steam" on February 22, including one that shows the Penydarren locomotive. The inscription "TRAMROAD LOCOMOTIVE" derives from the fact that the rails over which the train ran were those in place for a horse-drawn tram already in use at the mine. Note the flanges at the sides of the rails, to keep the wheels from slipping off the sides. Flanged wheels were not yet standard.
Strangely, the usual villains seem to have overlooked this opportunity for a flood of stamp issues to mark the event, so those two may be the only ones we will see.
NOTE: Various spellings of "Penydarren" can be found, with letters singled, or doubled, or capitalized, and with hyphens added. The one used in this article is the one currently accepted. It is a place name, a village in south Wales.
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All text Copyright © 2004, William M. Senkus
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Revised -- 01/18/2007