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The idea that Stephenson invented the locomotive is a mistake. But just as James Watt improved the crude steam pumps and engines he found in existence, so George Stephenson of immortal memory developed and made practicable the locomotive. For, in spite of Hedley’s discovery or invention, all locomotives were partial failures until Stephenson took the matter in hand.

Nevertheless, William Hedley’s ‘Puffing Billy’ must be regarded as one of the first practicable railway engines ever built. It is still to be seen in the Science Museum, London. Patented in 1813, it began regular work at Wylam Colliery in that year, and continued in use until 1862. It was probably this engine which Stephenson saw when he said to Jonathan Foster that he could make a better one, and it was no doubt the first to work by smooth wheels on smooth rails. Altogether it has been looked upon as the ‘father’ of the enormous number of locomotives which have followed.

Among the various inventors and improvers of the locomotive engine, Richard Trevithick, a tin-miner in Cornwall, must have a high place.

Trevithick was a pupil of Murdock, who was an assistant of James Watt. Murdock had made a model successfully of a locomotive engine at Redruth. Others also had attempted the same thing. Savery had suggested something of the kind; Cugnot, a French engineer, built one in Paris in about 1763; Oliver Evans, an American, made a steam carriage in 1772; William Symington, who did so much for the steamboat, constructed a model of one in 1784. Many minds had been at work on the problem.

But Richard Trevithick was really the first Englishman who used a steam-engine on a railway. He had not much money and he persuaded his cousin, Andrew Vivian, to join him in the enterprise. In 1802 they took out a patent for a steam-engine to propel carriages.

But before this he had made a locomotive to travel along roads, and on Christmas Eve, 1801, the wonderful sight could have been seen of this machine carrying passengers for the first time. It is indeed believed to have been the first occasion on which passengers were conveyed by the agency of steam—the pioneer of all today’s traffic.

The machine was taken to London and exhibited in certain streets, and at length, in 1808, it was shown on ground where now, curiously enough, Euston Station now stands. Did any prevision of the extraordinary success of the locomotive flash across the engineer’s brain? Before the infant century had run its course, what wonderful developments of the strange new machine were to be seen on that very spot!

Much interest was aroused by the exhibition of this machine, and Sir Humphrey Davy, a fellow Cornishman, is reported to have written to a friend—“I shall soon hope to hear that the roads of England are the haunts of Captain Trevithick’s dragons—a characteristic name.”


Text adapted from Engineers and Their Triumphs, by F.M. Holmes, which is in the public domain.


For how many years was ‘Puffing Billy’ used as a working engine?