Cornish Inventor and Mining Engineer Richard Trevithick was born 13 April 1771 in Tregajorran, Cornwall and 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 Pen-y-darren Ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. Trevithick was an engineer at a mine in 1797 and 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. He improved boiler technology allowing the safe production of high pressure steam, able to move pistons in steam engines instead of using atmospheric pressure.
Richard Trevithicks next door neighbour in Redruth William Murdoch also demonstrated a model steam carriage to Trevithick in 1794. Meanwhile Oliver Evans in the U.S. Was working on something similar and Arthur Woolf was also experimenting on a similar engine whilst working as the Chief Engineer of the Griffin Brewery. However Trevithick actually made high pressure steam work, eliminating the need for a condenser, and allowing the use of a smaller cylinder, saving space and weight. Making the engine more compact, lighter and small enough to carry its own weight even with a carriage attached. Trevithick started building his first stationary models of high pressure steam engines, then attached one to a road carriage. Exhaust steam was vented via a vertical chimney, thus avoiding a condenser and any possible infringements of Watt’s patent, with linear motion being converted into circular motion via a crank instead of a beam. Trevithick built a full-size steam road locomotive in 1801 in Camborne. He named the carriage ‘Puffing Devil’ and, on Christmas Eve it successfully carried seven men from Fore Street up Camborne Hill, past Camborne Cross, to the nearby village of Beacon with his cousin and associate, Andrew Vivian, steering. This is 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 was prone to break down and on one occasion the Boiler was allowed to run dry and the machine exploded. 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. 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 The Puffing Devil could not maintain sufficient steam pressure 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. Homfrey 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 locomotive was relatively primitive comprising of 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. 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 Trevithick’s machine was too heavy for the wooden 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. So Recently a group of dedicated people down at the Severn Valley Railway decided to build a replica of Catch-Me-Who-Can. In 1805 Cornish Engineer Robert Vazie, excavated a tunnel under the River Thames at Rotherhithe and had serious problems with flooding getting no further than sinking the end shafts. So Trevithick was consulted and paid £1000 (the equivalent of £67,387 as of 2014 to complete the tunnel, a length of 1220 feet (366 m). In August 1807 Trevithick began driving a small pilot tunnel and By 23 December after it had progressed 950 feet (285 m) however progress was delayed after The tunnel was flooded twice and Trevithick, was nearly drowned consequently the project was not completed until 1843 when Sir Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel built a tunnel under the Thames. Trevithick’s used a submerged tube to cross the Detroit River in Michigan with the construction of the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel, under the engineering supervision of The New York Central Railway’s engineering vice president, William J Wilgus. Construction began in 1903 and was completed in 1910. The Detroit–Windsor Tunnel which was completed in 1930 for automotive traffic, and the tunnel under the Hong Kong harbour were also submerged tube designs. Trevithick’s high-pressure steam engines had many applications including cannon manufacture, stone crushing, rolling mills, forge hammers, blast furnace blowers and traditional mining. He also built a barge powered by paddle wheels and several dredgers.
In 1808, Trevithick entered a partnership with West Indian Merchant Robert Dickinson, who had supported Trevithick’s patents. Including the ‘Nautical Labourer’; a steam tug with a floating crane propelled by paddle wheels. He also patented Iron tanks in ships for storage of cargo and water instead of in wooden caskS, these were also used to raise sunken wrecks by placing them under the wreck and creating buoyancy by pumping them full of air. In 1810 a wreck near Margate was raised in this way. Trevithick worked on many other ideas on improvements for ships: iron floating docks, iron ships, telescopic iron masts, improved ship structures, iron buoys and using heat from the ships boilers for cooking. In May 1810, he caught typhoid and nearly died and in February 1811 he and Dickinson were declared bankrupt. Around 1812, Trevithick designed the ‘Cornish boiler’. These were horizontal, cylindrical boilers with a single internal fire tube or flue passing horizontally through the middle. Hot exhaust gases from the fire passed through the flue thus increasing the surface area heating the water and improving efficiency. These types were installed in the Boulton and Watt pumping engines at Dolcoath and more than doubled their efficiency.
Again in 1812, he installed a new ‘high-pressure’ experimental steam engine also with condensing at Wheal Prosper. This became known as the ‘Cornish engine’ and was the most efficient in the world at that time. Other Cornish engineers contributed to its development but Trevithick’s work was predominant. In the same year he installed another high-pressure engine, though non-condensing, in a threshing machine on a farm at Probus, Cornwall. It was very successful and proved to be cheaper to run than the horses it replaced. It ran for 70 years and is exhibited at the Science Museum. Trevithick attempted to build a ‘recoil engine’ similar to the aeolipile described by Hero of Alexandria in about AD 50, this comprised a boiler feeding a hollow axle to route the steam to a catherine wheel with two fine-bore steam jets on its circumference. The first wheel was 15 feet (4.6 m) in diameter and a later attempt was 24 feet (7.3 m) in diameter. To get any usable torque, steam had to issue from the nozzles at a very high velocity and in such large volume that it proved not to operate with adequate efficiency. Today this would be recognised as a reaction turbine.
Around 1811 a miner, named Francisco Uville bought one of Trevithick’s Hight Pressure Steam Engine for draining water from his silver mine at Cerro de Pasco, Peru. In 1813 Uville set sail again for England and, having fallen ill on the way, broke his journey via Jamaica. When he had recovered he boarded the Falmouth packet ship ‘Fox’ coincidentally with one of Trevithick’s cousins on board the same vessel. On 20 October 1816 Trevithick left Penzance on the whaler ship Asp accompanied by a lawyer named Page and a boilermaker bound for Peru where he travelled widely, acting as a consultant on mining methods. The government granted him certain mining rights and he found mining areas, but did not have the funds to develop them, with the exception of a copper and silver mine at Caxatambo.
After serving in the army of Simon Bolivar he returned to Caxatambo but was forced to leave the area and abandon £5000 worth of ore ready to ship. Uville died in 1818 and Trevithick soon returned to Cerro de Pasco After leaving Cerro de Pasco, Trevithick passed through Ecuador on his way to Bogotá in Colombia. He arrived in Costa Rica in 1822 to build mining machinery. However transporting ore and equipment, using the San Juan River, the Sarapiqui River, and the railway proved treacherous And Trevithick was nearly killed on at least two occasions – he nearly drowned, and was nearly devoured by an alligator. He made his way to Cartagena where he met Robert Stephenson who was on his way home from Colombia. And Stephenson gave Trevithick £50 to help his passage home. He arrived at Falmouth in October 1827 with few possessions other than the clothes he was wearing, unsurprisingly Trevithick never returned to Costa Rica. In 1829 he built a closed cycle steam engine followed by a vertical tubular boiler. In1830 he invented an early form of storage room heater, which comprised a small fire tube boiler with a detachable flue which could be heated either outside or indoors with the flue connected to a chimney. To commemorate the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832 he designed a massive column to be 1000 feet (300 m) high, 100 feet (30 m) in diameter at the base tapering to 12 feet (3.6 m) at the top where a statue of a horse would have been mounted. but it was never built. he was also invited to work on an engine of a new vessel at Dartford, Which involved a reaction turbine.
Despite his many innovations Richard Trevithick died penniless on April 22 1833 while lodging at the Bull Hotel, Dartford After being taken ill with pneumonia. Following a week’s confinement in bed he died on the morning of 22 April 1833. Trevithick was buried in an unmarked grave in St Edmunds Burial Ground, East Hill, Dartford. The burial ground closed in 1857, with the gravestones being removed in the 1960s. However A plaque marks the approximate spot believed to be the site of the grave on the side of the park, near the East Hill gate. He made a valuable contribution to engineering and technology and many replicas of his machinery have since been built including A replicas of the Coalbrookdale, Pen Y Darren, Puffing Devil and Catch-me-who-can which has been built at the Severn Valley Railway