George Stephenson and the Invention of the Steam Locomotive Engine

black and white drawing of first steam locomotive
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George Stephenson was born on June 9, 1781, in the coal mining village of Wylam, England. His father, Robert Stephenson, was a poor, hard-working man who supported his family entirely from wages of twelve shillings a week.

Wagons loaded with coal passed through Wylam several times a day. These wagons were drawn by horses since locomotives had not yet been invented. Stephenson's first job was to watch over a few cows owned by a neighbor as they were allowed to feed along the road. Stephenson was paid two cents a day to keep the cows out of the way of the coal-wagons and to close the gates after the day's work was over.

Life in the Coal Mines

Stephenson's next job was at the mines as a picker. His duty was to clean the coal of stone, slate and other impurities. Eventually, Stephenson worked at several coal mines as a fireman, plugman, brakeman and engineer.

However, in his spare time, Stephenson loved to tinker with any engine or piece of mining equipment that fell into his hands. He became skilled at adjusting and even repairing the engines found in the mining pumps, even though at that time he could not read or write. As a young adult, Stephenson paid for and attended night school where he learned to read, write and do arithmetic. In 1804, Stephenson walked on foot to Scotland to take a job working in a coal mine that used one of James Watt's steam engines, the best steam engines of the day.

In 1807, Stephenson considered emigrating to America but he was too poor to pay for the passage. He began to work nights repairing shoes, clocks, and watches so that he could make extra money to spend on his inventing projects.

The First Locomotive 

In 1813, Stephenson found out that William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth were designing a locomotive for the Wylam coal mine. So at the age of twenty, Stephenson began the construction of his first locomotive. It should be noted that at this time in history every part of the engine had to be made by hand and hammered into shape just like a horseshoe. John Thorswall, a coal mine blacksmith, was Stephenson's main assistant.

The Blucher Hauls Coal

After ten months of labor, Stephenson's locomotive "Blucher" was completed and tested on the Collingwood Railway on July 25, 1814. The track was an uphill trek of four hundred and fifty feet. Stephenson's engine hauled eight loaded coal wagons weighing thirty tons, at a speed of about four miles an hour. This was the first steam-powered locomotive to run on a railroad as well as the most successful working steam engine that had ever been constructed up to this period. The achievement encouraged the inventor to try further experiments. In all, Stephenson built sixteen different engines.

Stephenson also built the world's first public railways. He built the Stockton and Darlington railway in 1825 and the Liverpool-Manchester railway in 1830. Stephenson was the chief engineer for several other railways.

Other Inventions

In 1815, Stephenson invented a new safety lamp that would not explode when used around flammable gasses found in the coal mines.

That year, Stephenson and Ralph Dodds patented an improved method of driving (turning) locomotive wheels using pins attached to the spokes that acted as cranks. The driving rod was connected to the pin using a ball and socket joint. Previously gear wheels had been used.

Stephenson and William Losh, who owned an ironworks in Newcastle, patented a method of making cast-iron rails.

In 1829, Stephenson and his son Robert invented a multi-tubular boiler for the now-famous locomotive "Rocket."

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Bellis, Mary. "George Stephenson and the Invention of the Steam Locomotive Engine." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 26). George Stephenson and the Invention of the Steam Locomotive Engine. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "George Stephenson and the Invention of the Steam Locomotive Engine." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).