Tribute to Richard Trevithick

Coalbrookdale Engine

Coalbrookdale Engine

Richard Trevithick was born 13 April 1771 in Tregajorran. He was a British inventor and mining engineer from Cornwall. His most significant success was the high pressure steam engine and he also built the first full-scale working railway steam locomotive. On 21 February 1804 the world’s first locomotive-hauled railway journey took place as Trevithick’s unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along the tramway of the Penydarren Ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. Trevithick was an engineer at a mine in 1797 when he, with the help of Edward Bull pioneered the use of a High Pressure Steam Engine, but ran afoul of Matthew Boulton & James Watt, who were working on a similar device and held a number of Patents. As his experience grew, he realised that improvements in boiler technology now permitted the safe production of high pressure steam, which could move a piston in a steam engine on its own account, instead of using pressure near to atmospheric in condensing engines. He was not the first to think of so-called “strong steam”. William Murdoch had developed and demonstrated a model steam carriage, starting in 1784, and demonstrated it to Trevithick at his request in 1794. In fact, Trevithick lived next door to Murdoch in Redruth in 1797 and 1798. Oliver Evans in the U.S. Was working on something similar but his never come to Trevithick’s attention. Arthur Woolf was also experimenting with higher pressures whilst working as the Chief Engineer of the Griffin Brewery. This was an Engine designed by Hornblower and Maberly, and the proprietors were keen to have the best steam engine in London. Around 1796 Woolf had agreed to save substantial amounts on coal consumption. According to his son Francis, Trevithick was the first to make high pressure steam work in England, in 1799. Not only would a high pressure steam engine eliminate the condenser, but it would allow the use of a smaller cylinder, saving space and weight. He reasoned that his engine could now be more compact, lighter and small enough to carry its own weight even with a carriage attached. Trevithick started building his first models of high pressure steam engines, initially a stationary one and then one attached to a road carriage. A double-acting cylinder was used, with steam distribution by means of a four-way valve. Exhaust steam was vented via a vertical pipe or chimney straight into the atmosphere, thus avoiding a condenser and any possible infringements of Watt’s patent. The linear motion was directly converted into circular motion via a crank instead of a beam.

London Steam Carriage

London Steam Carriage

Trevithick built a full-size steam road locomotive in 1801 on a site near the present day Fore Street at Camborne. He named the carriage ‘Puffing Devil’ and, on Christmas Eve that year, he demonstrated it by successfully carrying several men up Fore Street and then continuing on up Camborne Hill, from Camborne Cross, to the nearby village of Beacon with his cousin and associate, Andrew Vivian, steering. This is widely recognised as the first demonstration of transportation powered by steam, and it later inspired the popular Cornish folk song “Camborne Hill”. However, a steam wagon built in 1770 by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot may have an earlier claim. During further tests, Trevithick’s locomotive broke down three days later, after passing over a gully in the road. The vehicle was left under some shelter with the fire still burning whilst the operators retired to a nearby public house for a meal of roast goose and drinks. Meanwhile the water boiled off, the engine overheated and the machine burned, destroying it. Trevithick did not consider this a serious setback, but rather operator error. In 1802 Trevithick took out a patent for his high pressure steam engine. To prove his ideas, he built a stationary engine at the Coalbrookdale Company’s works in Shropshire in 1802, forcing water to a measured height to measure the work done. The engine ran at forty piston strokes a minute, with an unprecedented boiler pressure of 145 psi. The Coalbrookdale company then built a rail locomotive for him, but little is known about it, including whether or not it actually ran. To date, the only known information about it comes from a drawing preserved at the Science Museum, London, together with a letter written by Trevithick to his friend, Davies Giddy. The design incorporated a single horizontal cylinder enclosed in a return-flue boiler. A flywheel drove the wheels on one side through spur gears, and the axles were mounted directly on the boiler, with no frame. Unfortunately it was found that The Puffing Devil was unable to maintain sufficient steam pressure for long periods, and would have been of little practical use. In 1803 he built another steam-powered road vehicle called the London Steam Carriage, which attracted much attention from the public and press when he drove it that year in London from Holborn to Paddington and back. It was uncomfortable for passengers and proved more expensive to run than a horse-drawn carriage and so the project was abandoned. In 1802 Trevithick built one of his high pressure steam engines to drive a hammer at the Pen-y-Darren Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. With the assistance of Rees Jones, an employee of the iron works and under the supervision of Samuel Homfray, the proprietor, he mounted the engine on wheels and turned it into a locomotive. In 1803 Trevithick sold the patents for his locomotives to Samuel Homfray.

Homfray was so impressed with Trevithick’s locomotive that he made a bet with another ironmaster, Richard Crawshay, for 500 guineas that Trevithick’s steam locomotive could haul 10 tons of iron along the Merthyr Tydfil Tramroad from Penydarren to Abercynon , a distance of 9.75 miles (16 km). Amid great interest from the public, on 21 February 1804 it successfully carried 10 tons of iron, 5 wagons and 70 men the full distance in 4 hours and 5 minutes, an average speed of approximately 2.4 mph (3.9 km/h). As well as Homfray, Crawshay and the passengers, other witnesses included Mr. Giddy, a respected patron of Trevithick and an ‘engineer from the Government’. The engineer from the Government was probably a safety inspector and particularly interested in the boiler’s ability to withstand high steam pressures.

The locomotive was of a primitive design. It comprised a boiler with a single return flue mounted on a four wheel frame. At one end, a single cylinder with very long stroke was mounted partly in the boiler, and a piston rod crosshead ran out along a slidebar, an arrangement that looked like a giant trombone. As there was only one cylinder, this was coupled to a large flywheel mounted on one side. The rotational inertia of the flywheel would even out the movement that was transmitted to a central cog-wheel that was, in turn connected to the driving wheels. It used a high pressure cylinder without a condenser, the exhaust steam was sent up the chimney assisting the draught through the fire, increasing efficiency even more. Despite many people’s doubts, it had been shown that, provided that the gradient was sufficiently shallow, it was possible to successfully haul heavy carriages along a “smooth” iron road using the adhesive weight alone of a suitably heavy and powerful steam locomotive. Trevithick’s was probably the first to do so; however some of the short cast iron plates of the tramroad broke under the locomotive as they were intended only to support the lighter axle load of horse-drawn wagons and so the tramroad returned to horse power after the initial test run. The proprietor of the Wylam colliery near Newcastle, heard of the success in Wales and wrote to Trevithick asking for locomotive designs. These were sent to John Whitfield at Gateshead, Trevithick’s agent, who built what was probably the first locomotive to have flanged wheels. Unfortunately wooden rails were used for his tramway and, once again, and Trevithick’s machine was to prove too heavy for its track. Then In 1808 Trevithick publicised his steam railway locomotive expertise by building a new locomotive called ‘Catch me who can’, built for him by John Hazledine and John Urpeth Rastrick at Bridgnorth in Shropshire, This was similar to that used at Penydarren and named by Mr. Giddy’s daughter. This was Trevithick’s third railway locomotive after those used at Pen-y-darren ironworks and the Wylam colliery. He ran it on a circular track just south of the present day Euston Square tube station in London, Admission to the “steam circus” was one shilling including a ride and it was intended to show that rail travel was faster than by horse. This venture also suffered from weak cast Iron tracks and public interest was limited. Trevithick was disappointed by the response and designed no more railway locomotives, However a group of dedicated people down at the Severn Valley Railway decided to build a replica of Catch-Me-Who-Can and I’ve been lucky enough to see it on a number of occasions.


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