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Richard Trevithick

Richard Trevithick

Richard Trevithick, was born in Illogan, Cornwall, in 1771. Richard was educated at Camborne School but he was more interested in sport than academic learning. Trevithick was six feet two inches high and was known as the Cornish giant. He was very strong lad and by the age of eighteen he could throw sledge hammers over the tops of engine houses and write his name on a beam six feet from the floor with half a hundredweight hanging from his thumb. Trevithick also had the reputation of being one of the best wrestlers in Cornwall.

Trevithick went to work with his father at Wheal Treasury mine and soon revealed an aptitude for engineering. After making improvements to the Bull Steam Engine, Trevithick was promoted to engineer of the Ding Dong mine at Penzance. While at the Ding Dong mine he developed a successful high-pressure engine that was soon in great demand in Cornwall and South Wales for raising the ore and refuse from mines.

Trevithick also began experimenting with the idea of producing a steam locomotive. At first he concentrating on making a miniature locomotive and by 1796 had produced one that worked. The boiler and engine were in one piece; hot water was put into the boiler and a redhot iron was inserted into a tube underneath; thus causing steam to be raised and the engine set in motion.

Richard Trevithick now attempted to produce a much larger steam road locomotive and on Christmas Eve, 1801, it used it to take seven friends on a short journey. The locomotive's principle features were a cylindrical horizontal boiler and a single horizontal cylinder let into it. The piston, propelled back and forth in the cylinder by pressure of steam, was linked by piston rod and connecting rod to a crankshaft bearing a large flywheel. Trevithick's locomotive became known as the Puffing Devil but it could only go on short journeys as he was unable to find a way of keeping up the steam for any length of time.

Despite these early problems, Trevithick travelled to London where he showed several leading scientists, including Humphrey Davy, what he had invented. James Watt had been considering using this method to power a locomotive but had rejected the idea as too risky. Watt argued that the use of steam at high temperature, would result in dangerous explosions. Trevithick was later to accuse Watt and his partner, Matthew Boulton, of using their influence to persuade Parliament to pass a bill banning his experiments with steam locomotives.

In 1803 a company called Vivian & West, agreed to finance Trevithick's experiments. Richard Trevithick exhibited his new locomotive in London. However, after a couple of days the locomotive encountered serious problems that prevented it pulling a carriage. Vivian & West were disappointed with Trevithick's lack of practical success and they withdrew from the project.

Richard Trevithick soon found another sponsor in Samuel Homfray, the owner of the Penydarren Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil. In February 1804, Trevithick produced the world's first steam engine to run successfully on rails. The locomotive, with its single vertical cylinder, 8 foot flywheel and long piston-rod, managed to haul ten tons of iron, seventy passengers and five wagons from the ironworks at Penydarren to the Merthyr-Cardiff Canal. During the nine mile journey the Penydarren locomotive reached speeds of nearly five miles an hour. Trevithick's locomotive employed the very important principle of turning the exhaust steam up the chimney, so producing a draft which drew the hot gases from the fire more powerfully through the boiler.

Trevithick's Penydarren locomotive only made three journeys. Each time the seven-ton steam engine broke the cast iron rails. Samuel Homfray came to the conclusion that Trevithick's invention was unlikely to reduce his transport costs and so he decided to abandon the project.

Trevithick was now employed by Christopher Blackett, who owned the Wylam Colliery in Northumberland. A five-mile wooden wagonway had been built in 1748 to take the coal from Wylam to the River Tyne. Blackett wanted a locomotive that would replace the use of horse-drawn coal wagons. The Wylam locomotive was built but weighing five tons, it was too heavy for Blackett's wooden wagonway.

Trevithick returned to Cornwall and after further experiments developed a new locomotive he called Catch Me Who Can. In the summer of 1808 Trevithick erected a circular railway in Euston Square and during the months of July and August people could ride on his locomotive on the payment of one shilling. Trevithick had plenty of volunteers for his locomotive that reached speeds of 12 mph (19 kph) but once again the rails broke and he was forced to bring the experiment to an end.

Without financial backing, Richard Trevithick had to abandon his plans to develop a steam locomotive. Trevithick now found work with a company who paid him to develop a steam dredger to lift waste from the bottom of the Thames. He was paid by results, receiving sixpence for every ton lifted from the river.

Trevithick found it difficult to make money from his steam dredger and in 1816 he accepted an offer to work as an engineer in a silver mine in Peru. After some early difficulties, Trevithick's steam-engines were very successful and he was able to use his profits to acquire his own silver mines. However, in 1826 war broke out and Trevithick was forced to flee and leave behind his steam-engines and silver mines. After a unsuccessful spell in Costa Rica, Trevithick moved to Colombia, where he met Robert Stephenson, who was building a railway in that country. Stephenson generously gave Trevithick the money to pay for his journey back to England.

Although inventors such as George Stephenson argued that Trevithick's early experiments were vital to the development of locomotives, in February 1828, the House of Commons rejected a petition suggesting that he should receive a government pension. Trevithick continued to experiment with new ideas. This included the propulsion of steamboats by means of a spiral wheel at the stern, an improved marine boiler, a new recoil gun-carriage and apparatus for heating apartments. Another scheme was the building of a 1,000 feet cast-iron column to commemorate the 1832 Reform Act.

All these schemes failed to receive financial support and Richard Trevithick died in extreme poverty at the Bull Inn, Dartford, on 22nd April, 1833. As he left no money for his burial, he faced the prospect of a pauper's funeral. However, when a group of local factory workers heard the news, they raised enough money to provide a decent funeral and he was buried in Dartford churchyard.

Trevithick was the real inventor of the locomotive. He was the first to prove the sufficiency of the adhesion of the wheels on the rails for all purposes of traction on lines of ordinary gradient, the first to make the return flue boiler, the first to use the steam jet in the chimney, and the first to couple all the wheels of the engine.

Yesterday we proceeded on our journey with the engine. We performed the nine miles in four hours and five minutes. We had to remove some large rocks on the way. On our return home one of the small bolts that fastened the axle to the boiler broke, and all the water ran out of the boiler.

Boulton and Watt have strained every nerve to get a bill passed in the House of Commons to stop these engines, saying the lives of the public are endangered.

We have tried the carriage with twenty-five tons of iron, and found we were more than a match for that weight. The steam is delivered into the chimney above the damper. It makes the draught much stronger by going up the chimney.

My father was at Penydarren when the engine was made and tried. Samuel Homfray, proprietor of the Penydarren Iron Works, Merthyr Tydfil, made a bet of 1,000 guineas with Richard Crawshay, of the Cyfarthfa Iron Works, that Trevithick's steam-engine could convey a load of iron from his works to the Navigation House (nine miles distant).

I assisted Mr. Trevithick in the making of his locomotive. She worked very well; but frequently her weight broke the tram-plates. On the third journey she broke a great many of the tram-plates. She was brought back to Penydarren by horses. The engine was never used as a locomotive after this.


History of Steam Locomotive

The history of modern train industry started with the appearance of first steam engines, which enabled human race for the first time to transport goods and people using fast, reliable and cheap way that sparked new age in the life of industrial revolution, human expansion and global economy. With the initial great expansion of railways and locomotive designs, countless inventors focused their careers on improving trains and enabling goods and people to be transported much safer and faster than ever before, reaching the current times where diesel engines, electrical trains and maglev high-speed bullet train encompass the entire earth. But all those trains had to start from one point, and that point was steam engines.

Steam engines were introduced to the public during 1770s, but their Scottish inventor James Watt sat on the patent and did not allow anyone to gain any commercial benefit from his designs. When his patent expired in 1800s, floodgates of innovation opened all around the world and many inventors jumped to the opportunity to create their own vision of automated locomotive powered by steam. Richard Trevithick’s was first one who took this chance, and showcased to the world his innovative design of high-pressure steam engines that enabled him to create much more power from the locomotive of same weight and size than before. Even though nobody believed that steam can deliver enough power for industrial use, he managed to showcase his design to a mine owner by pulling the weight of 10 tons over his 10 mile long course. Even though his initial train design was not successful, he continued to innovate, managing even to publicly showcase his “Catch me who can” locomotive that was placed on a makeshift train track set in the middle of the London's Torrington Square.

Much more success is today contributed to English inventor Matthew Murray who in 1804 created first moving steam locomotive, and more famous twin-cylinder Salamanca locomotive that was used publicly in 1812. However he was not the inventor who designed steam locomotive that was used on the first public railway system. That honor went to George Stephenson, famous English engineer who created “Locomotion” in 1825 for the Stockton and Darlington Railway in north-east England. Only four years later he joined into Rainhill Trials, competition of building best and easy to use steam locomotive for transport of passengers. With four more entrants as his competition, Stephenson managed to win using “The Rocket” by reaching incredible speed of 45 km/h while transporting 30 passengers. He and his designer of tube pressurized boiler received prize for 1st place, and soon their locomotives started appearing across entire England.

Over the years steam trains evolved significantly. They were equipped with cow catchers for better moving through turns (and protection from wandering animals on railway tracks), passenger sections became popular and built for both short and long travels with all necessary luxuries. Engines received update to four cylinders, geared wheels for industrial use, and between 1930s and 1950s they slowly transitioned to the new kinds of power sources– diesel and electric engines.

Today, steam locomotives are mostly used in museums as windows to the past, but sometimes preserved and working models are used as tourist attractions enabling anyone to feel for themselves how train industry began.


Richard Trevithick in East Greenwich

‘He was one of the world’s great benefactors who have been rejected…. who have given us priceless possessions and have died in poverty’.

Arthur Mee, who wrote these words in his � Heroes’, came from Kent. He should have known better than to comment on the death there of one of the most important steam engine designers as if it had been ignominious. . Richard Trevithick, sometimes called the Cornish giant, had been responsible for a series of engineering innovations in the early nineteenth century. Following a financially disastrous venture in South America he had returned to England and gone to work for John Hall in Dartford. He died there in 1833 at the Bull Hotel. Today a plaque in the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel claims to mark the spot concerned – a remarkably prosperous setting for one said to die ‘in poverty’. . Trevithick is buried in St, Edmunds’ churchyard, up on East Hill, where a plaque indicates the location of his grave. His biographers have tended to stress this as a sad and unworthy end although Trevithick was undertaking important work for Hall who was more than prepared to invest in new ideas. Luckily for Kent these biographers but have failed to connect it with another turning point in both Trevithick’s life, and the history of the steam engine.

Trevithick came from Cornwall and worked in the world of tin mining, an industry which was of great importance as customers for early steam engines. Many of these engines were supplied by James Watt who held an important patent which held back competitors for many years. He was later to prove, as Mee said, a ‘bitter and jealous competitor’ to Trevithick and other rivals. The use of high pressure steam had been considered by Watt who thought it too dangerous and too difficult to use but Trevithick began to develop an engine of this sort. . It was small but had a great deal of power and could develop steam at ten times the pressure of the atmosphere. Trevithick and his partners gradually began to sell these engines. He is famous for his trials of a locomotive propelled by steam which he demonstrated in Cambourne, Cornwall, in 1801 and later brought to London. However what was needed were engines to power industry and by 1800 steam engines were already becoming very important in London. More and more firms were taking up the challenge John Farey, a contemporary of Trevithick writing in 1827, estimated that 112 steam engines had been at work in London in 1805. The majority of these were built by James Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton but other suppliers were already making inroads – and these included Richard Trevithick and his partners.

In 1802 Trevithick set up in an office in Southampton Street, near the Strand. Sales were handled by Andrew Vivian one of the family involved in metal mining in the West Country and, latterly, in Wales Trevithick and Vivian did not manufacture engines themselves but commissioned parts from a number of makers under a licensing system..They were mainly concerned with promotion and with large scale projects. Trevithick had devised a ‘locomotive’ vehicle that he and Vivian demonstrated in the London streets and he began to get contracts for work on a number of projects, some of which were on the Thames and some in Kent. For example, in 1803 he used steam power to break up a rocky shoal in the Thames which had been obstructing shipping at Blackwall. He installed a fourteen horse power engine at Deptford Dockyard and tests on his engines were undertaken by ‘gentlemen from Woolwich’ – that is from the Royal Dockyard..

In 1803 a George Russell ordered an 8 horse power high pressure engine from Andrew Vivian. Russell was the promoter of a large tide mill on the Greenwich peninsula and the engine was to be used during construction work and for other purposes. The engine cost Russell £75.12s..

Russell’s engine was used for pumping out water during the construction of the tide mill which had been described in a previous article. It was on the East Greenwich marshes on the river side at the end of the lane, known then as Marsh Lane and today as Riverway. Building work went on during 1803 in the charge of the foreman, a Mr. Dryden. The steam engine began to give some concern. The fire was directly in contact with the cast iron of the boiler and on Sunday 4th September it overheated. The boiler became red hot and some joints burnt out. Despite this the engine was kept working and was the responsibility of an apprentice- whose name is not known.

On the following Thursday, the 8th September, this boy was called away from minding the engine and asked to catch eels which had congregated under the foundations of the building. It is not clear why he went – perhaps they were a nuisance and he had been told to go and clear them by the foreman. However it was dinnertime and eels can be very tasty spit roasted, or even steamed. Workmen have always found ways of adapting equipment to cookery (my father used to describe using the steam hose to cook shrimps caught in Northfleet off Harmsworth’s jetty) . For whatever reason the boy went off and left the steam lever – which vented the waste stream – fastened down. He had in fact wedged a piece of timber between the top of the safety value and then bent it down so that it could not rise to let the steam escape.

A labourer was asked to mind the engine while the boy was gone and noticed that it had begun to run too fast. He was alarmed by this and shut it down but he did not remove the wedge that was jamming the safety valve. The result was inevitable and fatal. The boiler burst ‘with an explosion as sudden and as dreadful as a powder mill’. One piece of the boiler, an inch thick and weighing 5 cwt was thrown 125 yards in the air and ‘landing on the ground made a hole eighteen inches deep’. Bricks were thrown in a ‘circle of two hundred, no two of them stayed together’. Three men were killed instantly, and three more were injured.

In my attempts to research this incident I have never managed to trace the inquest records on the three who died. I do not know their names or anything about them. Of the three who were injured, one went deaf but was soon to able to return to work. One, the boy, also fully recovered. The third, Thomas Nailor, had been showered with boiling water and was badly scalded. A wherry was called and he was taken to St.Thomas Hospital. St. Thomas was then still on its old site in the Borough – on the site now occupied by the southern part of London Bridge Station. It was near the river and easy to reach by wherry. Thus Nailor went to one of the best hospitals in the country as quickly and efficiently as he could he could be got there. The incident illustrates something about the response to ‘casualties’ – something rarely mentioned in works about nineteenth century medicine. Despite the work of Mr. Bingham, the surgeon, Nailor died three days later. It may be of interest that he, and those who gave evidence at his inquest, did not live in Greenwich but across the river in Poplar..

The newspapers were quick to report the accident – although there is the suspicion that the story was given to them by those who did not wish Trevithick well. In particular, he thought, James Watt and his partner, Matthew Boulton, were against him. He said that ‘Boulton and Watt are about to do me every injury in their power for they have done the best to report the explosion both in the newspapers and in private letters very different to what it really was’. When The Times ran the story a week after the incident it was with the rider that Mr. Watt’s engines would not explode in this way.. However reports in the press, so far as they can be traced, do not really differ very much from Trevithick’s account of the accident based on his inspection of the site a week or so later.

Trevithick quickly made some changes to the design of his engine boilers. It had been said in the press that the accident should be a ‘warning to engineers to construct their safety valves so that common workmen cannot stop them at their pleasure’. In future Trevithick’s boilers had more than one safety vent and were constructed differently. It was, however, an accident that was well remembered and is recounted in almost every account of Trevithick and the steam engine. Few of these accounts are very clear as to where it happened – giving locations anywhere between Woolwich and Deptford! What none of them have realised is the importance of the tide mill that was under construction at the time and that this accident was only one of several which took place on that site in the next hundred years.

How far the incident hurt Trevithick and the progress of his high pressure engine is very difficult to tell. It has been said ‘history vindicated Trevithick for it was his high pressure engines that the steam locomotive possible’. New developments often give problems and many such tragedies have taken place. Trevithick is known and honoured for his work. The real victims were the nameless men who died at East Greenwich.

This article is based on archive material in the City of London Record Office and elsewhere and on material in Francis Trevithick’s biography of his father.


Replica locomotive

The replica locomotive on display in the Museum today was built working from Trevithick's original documents and plans (now in the National Museum of Science and Industry). It was inaugurated in 1981 and, ironically, presented the exact same problem as the original engine &mdash it too broke the rails on which it ran!

We cannot underestimate the importance of Trevithick's locomotive. In 1800, the fastest a man could travel over land was at a gallop on horseback a century later, much of the world had an extensive railway system on which trains regularly travelled at speeds of up to sixty miles per hour. This remarkable transformation, a momentous occasion in world history, was initiated in south Wales in that February of 1804.


Richard Trevithick

Built by young apprentices, it provides a working example of an important local contribution to the history of the steam locomotive.

Richard Trevithick was a Cornish mining engineer by profession. In 1801, he built a steam-powered road carriage called Puffing Devil which exploded while stuck in a ditch when Trevithick and crew retired to a local pub. Most famously he built what is widely accepted to be the world’s first steam-railway locomotive in 1804, which ran on the Pen-y-Darren tramway near Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.

There was another locomotive, built two years earlier, about which less is known. In 1802 Trevithick was working with the Coalbrookdale Company, Shropshire, on high-pressure stationary steam engines - and, it seems, experimenting with steam-powered locomotives. The historical sources are patchy, but it seems as though this locomotive was built at Coalbrookdale, possibly by the Quaker industrialist William

KEYWORDS: Steam Engine, Steam Locomotive, Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, Richard Trevithick, Museums


Richard Trevithick

Richard Trevithick was a British inventor and engineer. Relying on steam that is extremely high in heat and pressure, his "Puffing Devil" is widely considered to be the world's first demonstration of a steam powered vehicle. Ώ] .

Trevithick was born on April 13th 1771 in Illogan, Cornwall, England. He spent his youth at Illogan in a tin mining district of Cornwall and attended the village school. Considered a terrible student, his teachers referred to him as a "disobedient, slow, obstinate, spoiled boy" who would never amount to anything. His father (who was a mine manager) considered him to be someone who wasted his time on meaningless tasks and hobbies. Additionally, throughout his career Trevithick was considered to be illiterate. This did not stop him from having a fondness in tinkering with machinery, as at a young age he was noted for being a protege in understanding mechanical engineering ΐ] .

He obtained his fist job as an engineer to a group of Cornish ore mines in 1790 at the age of 19. Seven years later, he married Jane Harvey of a prominent engineering family. He went on to have six children with her, one of which became the superintendent of the London and North Western Railway and eventually wrote a biography on his father Α] .

Living in Cornwall during this time, Trevithick and many other engineers observed that the high import costs encouraged the ore-miner operators to conserve consumption of fuel for pumping and hoisting. Increased energy efficiency was a strong motivating factor in developing and alternative mode of transportation. Β] .

Many engineers were weary expanding the efficiency of the steam engine as there was the potential of increasing danger to the user. Using "strong steam", many engineers were reluctant to work with the super heated liquid, but Trevithick was not discouraged. Through observation and experiment, he realized that using high pressure strong steam and allowing it to expand within a cylinder, a much smaller and lighter engine could be built without reduced power from the low-pressure engines Γ] .

Nearing the end of the decade, Watt's patents expired, which allowed Trevithick to pursue his experimentation on high pressure steam engines. Δ] . In 1796 he had successfully produced a miniaturized locomotive that efficiently ran on strong steam. On Christmas Eve in 1801 he demonstrated an early version of the engine and used it to take his friends on a short ride. Calling it the "Puffing Devil", it was only able to go short distances as it lacked the ability to produce the steam for an extended period of time Ε] .

Trevithick met with a company called Vivian and West that agreed to fund his experiments. After a few days of using the locomotive, it failed in performing the tasks given, leading to the company pulling funding from Trevithick. He found a replacement sponsor from Penydarren Ironworks, which allowed him in 1804 to produce the worlds first steam engine to run successfully on rails. He was then hired by Wulam Colliery, where he created a locomotive to replace horse drawn carriages. It failed, as the weight was too heavy for the wooden track. Eventually in 1808 he erected the circular railway in Euston Square so he could run further tests on locomotive technology, but eventually had to suspend it as rails would again break from the weight Ζ] .

Without financial backing, Trevitchick abandoned his plans to develop a steam locomotive, and started to take various odd jobs. He eventually died of poverty on April 22nd, 1833. Facing the prospect of a pauper's funeral, a group of local factory workers had heard the news and raised enough funds to provide a decent funeral, and is buried in the Dartford churchyard Η] .


From Graces Guide

Note: This is a sub-section of Richard Trevithick

1797 November 7th. Trevithick married Jane Harvey (1772-1848) of Hayle at St. Erth.

Jane was a daughter of John Harvey, an Ironfounder and formerly a blacksmith from Carnwall Green who formed the local foundry Harveys of Hayle. The company became famous world-wide for building huge stationary 'beam' engines for pumping water, usually from mines, based on Newcomen’s and Watt’s engines. Jane was born at Carnhell, Gwinear, on 25th June 1772, and was aged 25 when they married.

1797 They lived at Moreton House, Redruth for the first nine months of the marriage and then moved to Camborne where they lived for ten years.

1808 Trevithick saw opportunities in London and persuaded his wife and 4 children reluctantly to join him for two and a half years lodging first in Rotherhithe and then in Limehouse.

1851 In the census at Pen Cliff, St Erth there are:

  • Jane Trevithick, Head, age 78, Widow, Land and House Proprietor. Born at Gwinear.
  • Richard Trevithick, Son, age 52, Agent Iron Trade. Born at Camborne.
  • plus two servants.


1861 In the census at Foundry Hill, St Erth there are:

  • Richard Trevithick, Head, age 62, Unmarried, Gentleman. Born at Camborne.
  • Jane Trevithick, Mother, age 88, Widow. Born at Gwinear.
  • Elizabeth Banfield, Sister, age 58, Married. Born at Camborne.
  • plus two servants

Trevithick's wife, Jane, lived to the age of ninety-six. She died at Pencliffe, Hayle in 1868. She had remained loyal to him during long years of financial difficulty and separation. She had received no money from him during his South American sojourn, during which time she was supported by her brother, Henry Harvey.

Of their six children, Francis Trevithick (1812–1877) became chief mechanical engineer of the London and North Western Railway, and Frederick Henry Trevithick constructed the floating steam bridge between Portsmouth and Gosport in 1864.

Little is known of Richard (1798–1872), John Harvey (1806–1877), Ann, or Elizabeth.


Facts about Richard Trevithick 1: school time

During his school period, Trevithick did not do well. However, he was capable to become a great figure in rail transport and steal-powered road.

Facts about Richard Trevithick 2: the important contribution

Trevithick was capable to develop the first high-pressure steam engine. It was considered as the most important contribution of Trevithick during his career. He also took the credit as the creator for the railway steam locomotive built in a full scale.

Facts about Richard the Lionheart


Steam and Richard Trevithick

His work with high-pressure steam changed the world – he built the first full scale steam locomotive and his ‘Puffing Devil’ was the first passenger carrying road vehicle (forerunner to the motor car). Its first journey took place right here in Camborne.

Trevithick was born near here in 1771, in Illogan parish, the mining heartland of Cornwall. His father was the manager of Dolcoath mine here in Camborne, and he was surrounded by machinery and engineering from a very early age.

At school in Camborne, Trevithick showed an unconventional skill with numbers, and by the age of 19 he was already a consultant at the East Stray Park mine. In 1797 he married Jane Harvey, daughter of the Harvey’s of Hayle, a world-renowned engineering family who built beam engines for pumping water. It was then that his pioneering work with steam began.

Known locally as ‘The Puffing Devil’, Trevithick’s high-pressure steam carriage was built here in 1801, and had its first test run on Christmas Eve, up Camborne Hill (now called Tehidy Road and Fore Street) to Camborne Cross and on to the village of Beacon.

(This famous journey was the world’s first demonstration of steam-powered transport, and inspired the popular Cornish folk song ‘Camborne Hill’.)

But Trevithick’s high-pressure steam inventions didn’t stop there. The London Steam carriage followed, along with the Pen-y-Darren locomotive at Merthyr Tydfil Ironworks and the ‘Catch Me Who Can’ – a ‘steam circus’ for the public in London.

His many other engineering projects included ship containers, dry docks, surface condensers, central heating systems and screw propellers. In later life, he adventured in South America, draining silver mines in Peru and exploring Costa Rica on foot where he met Robert Stephenson and was almost eaten by an alligator before returning to Britain.

Sadly, Richard Trevithick died penniless in 1833, his workmates clubbing together to pay for his grave. But his legacy lives on – it shaped the world around us, and here in Camborne we commemorate his genius every April, on Trevithick Day.

“Goin’ up Camborne Hill, coming down
The horses stood still
The wheels went around
Goin’ up Camborne Hill coming down”


Puffing Devil rebuilt

The rebuilding of Richard Trevithick's Puffing Devil celebrated a seminal event in the history of transport.

Every year, in April, the people of the Cornish town of Camborne celebrate Trevithick Day. Named in honour of local engineering hero Richard Trevithick, it's a bit of a party. There are fairground rides, entertainers, male-voice choirs, brass bands, troupes of dancers threading their way through the local streets and, best of all, a parade of historic steam engines.

Pride of place in this parade goes to a replica of Trevithick's revolutionary 1801 steam engine, the Puffing Devil. It may not look much, just 12ft long, mounted on a wooden chassis and running on wooden wheels with steel tyres, nevertheless the Puffing Devil represents a giant step forward in the history of transport. The Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk, the site of their first manned flight, are justly famed in the history of aviation Richard Trevithick and Camborne deserve equal recognition for their role in the development of land-based transport.

Growing up

Richard Trevithick was born on 13 April 1771. At this time Cornwall was the world's most important centre for the deep mining of metals, mostly copper and tin, and Trevithick's father was a leading mine captain or manager. A far-from-model schoolchild, but with a considerable talent for mathematics, Trevithick's real education came from living in the midst of one of the most heavily industrialised areas in Britain. At the age of 15 he was working with his father, and at 19 was appointed engineer at a local mine.

Cornish mines were notoriously wet, and the unending task of pumping the deep workings made Cornwall home to the world's greatest concentration of steam engines. The engines were absolutely vital to the operation of the mines, but the owners and operators were far from happy with their lot. Trevithick grew up surrounded by steam engines, and almost inevitably became embroiled in the fraught and contentious issues of engine operation and development.

Newcomen and Watt

The steam engines operating in Cornwall at this time were of two basic types: the Newcomen engine, introduced in Cornwall in 1720, and the Watt engine, introduced in 1777. Strictly speaking, the Newcomen engine is an atmospheric engine as it's the pressure of the atmosphere that drives the vertically mounted piston downwards. In the 'rest position' the piston is at the top of the cylinder and the working cycle begins with steam, at more or less atmospheric pressure, being introduced into the space below the piston. A jet of cold water is then directed into the cylinder, condensing some of the steam and creating a partial vacuum. The piston is then driven downwards by the net pressure acting on the top face of the piston. The Newcomen engine was mechanically crude, and with a thermal efficiency of around 1 per cent consumed prodigious amounts of coal – a key issue for Cornish operators who were wholly reliant on imported coal.

In 1763, James Watt, at the time working as an instrument maker at Glasgow University, was asked to repair a model Newcomen engine. Even when repaired the model engine barely worked, inspiring Watt to introduce a number of changes that, together, led to a radically improved engine.

The experience of working with a small model engine with a low thermal capacity made Watt very conscious of the problem of heat loss. This was a key issue as the cylinder had to be hot in order to fill the it with steam at the start of the working cycle. Heat was continuously leaking from the walls and top of the cylinder and, crucially, it was being repeatedly cooled by injections of cold water.

Watt's most famous modification to the Newcomen engine was to condense the steam in a water-cooled condenser, connected to the cylinder by a length of pipe and a control valve. He also closed off the top of the cylinder (further reducing heat loss) using steam, at around atmospheric pressure, to provide the downward force on the piston.

Watt's approach certainly led to a dramatic improvement in thermal efficiency – early Watt engines operated at around 2.7 per cent, and subsequent developments increased this to as much as 4.5 per cent. However, to fully understand the source of these efficiency gains you need to focus on what's going on in the cylinder, as opposed to the more obvious issue of heat loss.

The basic reason why the Watt engine is around three times more efficient than the Newcomen engine is because the use of a condenser results in a much better vacuum. Newcomen engines were typically operated with a partial vacuum of around 7.5lbs per square inch. The use of a separate water-cooled condenser enables the Watt engine to achieve rapid and effective cooling of the steam water-vapour mixture from the cylinder, resulting in a partial vacuum of about 1lb per square inch. So, while a Newcomen engine operates with a pressure difference across the top and bottom of the piston of around 7lbs per square inch, in a Watt engine the pressure difference is typically twice this figure. As both engines worked at about the same speed, this means that a Watt engine can deliver twice the power of a Newcomen engine with the same size of cylinder.

Understandably, Cornish mine operators were extremely keen to adopt the more efficient Watt engine. There was, however, a problem. Watt and his business partner Matthew Boulton charged users a levy equivalent to one-third of the cost of the coal saved over a Newcomen engine of equivalent power. The levy, along with the rigorous enforcement of the Watt patent, grew to be deeply resented by Cornish mine operators and engineers, leading to repeated engineering experiments designed to circumvent the patent. Trevithick became embroiled in many of these experiments and, along with several of his fellow countrymen, experienced the litigious wrath of Boulton and Watt.

Upping the ante

Watt is famous for his condenser. Trevithick's great claim to fame is his advocacy of 'strong', (i.e. high-pressure) steam, along with the design of a boiler that made high pressures possible. Watt was implacably opposed to this development, which he considered foolhardy and dangerous, famously declaring that Trevithick should be "hanged" for his efforts.

For a steam engine with a cylinder of a given size and stroke rate, the power output is determined by the net pressure acting on the piston. Watt's condenser was a valuable innovation because it took the pressure on the underside of the piston – opposing the downward motion – close to the realisable minimum, i.e. a vacuum.

This was a very useful step, but with a near vacuum achieved no further progress was possible. Trevithick's boiler was a move in the opposite direction – increasing the pressure on the topside of the piston – with progress limited solely by the capabilities of available boiler technology.

Prior to Trevithick, steam boilers were little more than glorified kettles. They had a flat base in contact with the fire and operated at around atmospheric pressure simply because they were incapable of withstanding anything higher. Trevithick designed a cylindrical boiler for inherent strength and, lacking a flat base, placed his fire and flue directly inside the boiler. Use of a U-shaped fire tube maximised the surface area of the flue in contact with the water in the boiler. This complex shape was formed from riveted sections of wrought iron, and would have tested contemporary manufacturing techniques to the limit.

The invention of his high-pressure boiler meant Trevithick could dispense with Watt's condenser to produce an efficient, compact, relatively cheap steam engine that evolved into a key power source of 19th-century industry. In the absence of a condenser Trevithick's new engine was vented directly to the atmosphere, and soon acquired the soubriquet 'puffer' from the sound of the exhaust gases pulsating up the chimney.

The first of Trevithick's high-pressure engines, working at 25lbs per square inch was installed at Cook's Kitchen mine near Camborne in 1800. It was still running 70 years later.

Puffing Devil

The puffer was so powerful and so compact that Trevithick was convinced it had the potential to propel itself. Working with a group of skilled friends and relations in Camborne, Trevithick set out to realise his dream of motorised transport. Construction began in November 1800, and by Christmas Eve 1801 the 'Puffing Devil' – with a boiler operating at 47lbs per square inch – was ready for its first run.

Trevithick, and possibly as many as eight other passengers, clambered onboard and, with night approaching and the rain coming on it, they set off. There's some uncertainty as to their exact route, but the general consensus is that they headed towards the centre of Camborne, along the modern Tehidy Road, up the steep stretch of road that is Fore Street, before stopping to turn round when the engine began to run short of steam.

This was a seminal event – the first demonstration of self-propelled vehicle as a practical mode of transport. Earlier examples of steam-powered vehicles, notably Cugnot's three-wheeled stream dray, were hopelessly impractical and essentially technological dead ends.

Recognition

Trevithick was just 29 when the Puffing Devil made its historic first run. His later engineering innovations were many, if not always wholly successful. Among his many subsequent achievements were an 1803 steam carriage that ran on the streets of London – sadly a commercial failure – and a locomotive designed for the Penydarren Ironworks in South Wales. In 1804, this successfully hauled a 10-tonne load along the nearby Merthyr Tydfil Tramroad – forming the world's first steam-hauled train, 25 years ahead of Stephenson's Rocket.

In 1816, Trevithick left Falmouth to repair his engines that had previously been sent to the silver mines in Peru. After many adventures and misfortunes he returned penniless in 1828. By a remarkable twist of fate, he was helped on his way home by a gift of 㿞 from Robert Stephenson of Rocket fame, whom he'd met quite by chance in Cartagena. The last years of his life were spent at J&E Hall Ltd in Deptford, where he designed a 150lb per square inch boiler.

Trevithick died a poor man on 22 April 1833 and was carried to an unmarked grave by his Hall's workmates. The contrast to James Watt, who died a wealthy man and now lies comfortably within the walls of St Mary's Church Handsworth is almost painful.

As an engineering innovator, Trevithick was every bit the equal of Watt. His personal misfortunes were, it could be said, largely self-inflicted, but his relative obscurity compared with Watt is a historic injustice. Thankfully, Trevithick's revolutionary role as the father of the steam train and portable power is becoming ever more widely recognised. In Camborne, it was never forgotten.

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Watch the video: The Story of Richard Trevithick (January 2022).