Stephenson, the son of a colliery
fireman, was born at Wylam, eight miles from Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
on 9th June, 1781. The cottage where the Stephenson family lived was
next to the Wylam Wagonway, and George grew
up with a keen interest in machines. George's first employment was
herding cows but when he was fourteen he joined his father at the
Dewley Colliery. George was an ambitious boy and at the age of eighteen
he began attending evening classes where he learnt to read and write.
In 1802 Stephenson became a colliery engineman. Later that
year he married Frances Henderson,
a servant at a local farm. To earn extra money, in the evenings, he
repaired clocks and watches. On 16th October, 1803, his only son,
Robert was born. Frances suffered from poor health and she died of
consumption in 1806.
When he was twenty-seven, Stephenson found employment as an engineman
at Killingworth Colliery. Every Saturday he took the engines to pieces
in order to understand how they were constructed. This included machines
made by Thomas Newcomen and James
Watt. By 1812 Stephenson's knowledge of engines resulted in him
being employed as the colliery's enginewright.
Working at a colliery, George
Stephenson was fully aware of the large number of accidents caused
by explosive gases. In his spare time Stephenson began work on a safety
lamp for miners. By 1815 he had developed a lamp that did not cause
explosions even in parts of the pit that were full of inflammable
gases. Unknown to Stephenson, Humphry Davy
was busy producing his own safety lamp.
In 1813 Stephenson became aware of attempts by William
Hedley and Timothy Hackworth, at
Wylam Colliery, to develop a locomotive.
Stephenson successfully convinced his colliery manager, Nicholas
Wood, his to allow him to try to produce a steam-powered machine.
By 1814 he had constructed a locomotive that could pull thirty tons
up a hill at 4 mph. Stephenson called his locomotive, the Blutcher,
and like other machines made at this time, it had two vertical cylinders
let into the boiler, from the pistons of which rods drove the gears.
Where Stephenson's locomotive differed from those produced by John
Blenkinsop, William Hedley and Timothy
Hackworth, was that the gears did not drive the rack pinions but
the flanged wheels. The Blutcher
was the first successful flanged-wheel adhesion locomotive. Stephenson
continued to try and improve his locomotive and in 1815 he changed
the design so that the connecting rods drove the wheels directly.
These wheels were coupled together by a chain. Over the next five
years Stephenson built sixteen engines at Killingworth. Most of these
were used locally but some were produced for the Duke of Portland's
wagonway from Kilmarnock to Troon.
The owners of the colliery were impressed with Stephenson's achievements
and in 1819 he was given the task of building a eight mile railroad
from Hetton to the River Wear at Sunderland.
While he was working on this Stephenson became convinced that to be
successful, steam railways had to be made as level as possible by
civil engineering works. The track was laid out in sections. The first
part was worked by locomotives, this was followed by fixed engines
and cables. After the railway reached 250 feet above sea level, the
coal wagons travelled down over 2 miles of self-acting inclined plane.
This was followed by another 2 miles of locomotive haulage. George
Stephenson only used fixed engines
and locomotives and had therefore produced the first ever railway
that was completely independent of animal power.
19th April 1821 an Act of Parliament was passed that authorized a
company owned by Edward Pearse to build
a horse railway that would link the collieries in West Durham, Darlington
and the River Tees at Stockton. Stephenson arranged a meeting with
Pease and suggested that he should consider building a locomotive
railway. Stephenson told Pease that "a horse on an iron road
would draw ten tons for one ton on a common road". Stephenson
added that the Blutcher locomotive
that he had built at Killingworth was "worth fifty horses".
That summer Edward Pease took up Stephenson's
invitation to visit Killingworth Colliery. When Pease saw the Blutcher
at work he realised George Stephenson
was right and offered him the post as the chief engineer of the Stockton
& Darlington company. It
was now now necessary for Pease to apply for a further Act of Parliament.
This time a clause was added that stated that Parliament gave permission
for the company "to make and erect locomotive or moveable engines".
began working with William Losh, who owned an ironworks in Newcastle.
Together they patented their own make of cast iron rails. In 1821
John Birkinshaw, an engineer at Bedlington Ironworks, developed a
new method of rolling wrought iron rails in fifteen feet lengths.
Stephenson went to see these malleable rails and decided they were
better than those that he was making with Losh. Although it cost him
a considerable amount of money, Stephenson decided to use Birkinshaw's
rails, rather than those he made with Losh, on the Stockton
& Darlington line.
In 1823 Edward Pease joined with Michael
Longdridge, George Stephenson and
his son Robert Stephenson, to form
a company to make the locomotives. The Robert Stephenson & Company,
at Forth Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
became the world's first locomotive builder. Stephenson recruited
Timothy Hackworth, one of the engineers
who had helped William Hedley to produce
Puffing Billy, to work for the
company. The first railway locomotive, Locomotion,
was finished in September 1825. The locomotive was similar to those
that Stephenson had produced at the collieries at Killingworth and
Work on the track began in 1822. George Stephenson used malleable
iron rails carried on cast iron chairs. These rails were laid on wooden
blocks for 12 miles between Stockton and Darlington. The 15 mile track
from the collieries and Darlington were laid on stone blocks.
While building this railway George Stephenson discovered that on a
smooth, level track, a tractive force of ten pounds would move a ton
of weight. However, when there was a gradient of 1 in 200, the hauling
power of a locomotive was reduced by 50 per cent. Stephenson came
to the conclusion that railways must be specially designed with the
object of avoiding as much as possible changes in gradient. This meant
that considerable time had to be spent on cuttings, tunnels and embankments.
The Stockton & Darlington line was
opened on 27th September, 1825. Large crowds saw George Stephenson
at the controls of the Locomotion
as it pulled 36 wagons filled with sacks of coal and flour. The initial
journey of just under 9 miles took two hours. However, during the
final descent into the Stockton terminus, speeds of 15 mph (24 kph)
The Stockton & Darlington line successfully
reduced the cost of transporting coal and in 1826 Stephenson was appointed
engineer and provider of locomotives for the Bolton
& Leigh railway. He also was the chief engineer of the proposed
Liverpool & Manchester railway.
Stephenson was faced with a large number of serious engineering problems.
This included crossing the unstable peat bog of Chat
Moss, a nine-arched viaduct across the Sankey
Valley and a two-mile long rock cutting at Olive
The directors of the Liverpool & Manchester
company were unsure whether to use locomotives or stationary engines
on their line. To help them reach a decision, it was decided to hold
a competition where the winning locomotive would be awarded £500.
The idea being that if the locomotive was good enough, it would be
the one used on the new railway.
The competition was held at Rainhill
during October 1829. Each competing locomotive had to haul a load
of three times its own weight at a speed of at least 10 mph. The locomotives
had to run twenty times up and down the track at Rainhill which made
the distance roughly equivalent to a return trip between Liverpool
and Manchester. Afraid that heavy locomotives would break the rails,
only machines that weighed less than six tons could compete in the
competition. Ten locomotives were originally entered for the Rainhill
Trials but only five turned up and two of these were withdrawn
because of mechanical problems. Sans Pariel
and Novelty did well but it was
the Rocket, produced by George and
his son, Robert Stephenson, that won
The Liverpool & Manchester railway
was opened on 15th September, 1830. The prime minister, the Duke
of Wellington, and a large number of important people attended
the opening ceremony that included a procession of eight locomotives.
Unfortunately, the day was marred by one of the government ministers,
William Huskisson, being knocked down
and killed by one of the locomotives. After his success with the Liverpool
& Manchester railway, Stephenson was the chief engineer of
the following railways: Manchester & Leeds, Birmingham & Derby,
Normanton & York and Sheffied & Rotherham.
George Stephenson continued to work on improving the quality of the
locomotives used on the railway lines he constructed. This included
the addition of a steam-jet developed by Goldsworthy
Gurney that increased the speed of the Rocket
to 29 mph.
In 1838 Stephenson purchased Tapton House, a Georgian mansion near
Chesterfield. Stephenson went into partnership with George
Hudson and James Sanders and together
they opened coalmines, ironworks and limestone quarries in the area.
Stephenson also owned a small farm where he experimented with stock
breeding, new types of manure and animal food. He also developed a
method of fattening chickens in half the usual time. He did this by
shutting them in dark boxes after a heavy feed.
Stephenson's second wife, Elizabeth Hindley, died in 1845. George
Stephenson married for a third time
just before he died at Tapton House, Chesterfield on 12th August,
George Stephenson, letter to Edward Pease (28th April, 1821)
am glad to learn that the Parliament Bill has been passed for the
Darlington Railway. I am much obliged by the favourable sentiments
you express towards me, and shall be happy if I can be of service
in carrying into execution your plans.
John Sykes was one of those who witnessed the opening of the Stockton
to Darlington Railroad.
novelty of the scene, and the fineness of the day, had attracted an
immense concourse of spectators, the fields on each side of the railway
being literally covered with ladies and gentlemen on horseback, and
pedestrians of all kinds. The train of carriages was then attached
to a locomotive engine, built by George Stephenson, in the following
order: (1) Locomotive engine, with the engineer (Mr. George Stephenson)
and assistants. (2) Tender, with coals and water; next, six wagons,
laden with coals and flour; then an elegant covered coach, with the
committee and other proprietors of the railway; then 21 wagons, fitted
up for passengers; and last of all, six wagons laden with coal, making
altogether, a train of 38 carriages. By the time the cavalcade arrived
at Stockton, where it was received with great joy, there were not
less than 600 persons within, and hanging by the carriages.
George Stephenson, letter published in The Philosophical Magazine
(13th March, 1817)
I observe you have thought proper to insert the last number of the
Philosophical Magazine your opinion that my attempts at the safety
tubes and apertures were borrowed from what I have heard of Sir Humprey
Davy's researches. The principles upon which a safety lamp might be
constructed I stated to several persons long before Sir Humphrey Davy
came into this part of the country. The plan of such a lamp was seen
by several and the lamp itself was in the hands of the manufacturers
during the time he was here.
Dr. Paris, Life of Sir Humphry Davy (1831)
will hereafter be scarcely believed that an invention so eminently
scientific, and which could never have been derived but from the sterling
treasury of science, should have been claimed on behalf of an engine-wright
of Killingworth, of the name of Stephenson - a person not even possessing
a knowledge of the elements of chemistry.
George Stephenson, letter to the directors of the Stockton & Darlington
Railway in 1821 after he has seen the rails being made by John Birkinshaw.
To tell you the truth although it would
put £500 in my pockets to specify my own patent rails, I cannot
do so after the experience I have had.
George Stephenson, letter to Joseph Sandars
The rage for railroads is so great that many
will be laid in parts where they will not pay.
On 25th April, 1825, George Stephenson gave evidence to the House
of Commons committee looking into the proposed Liverpool
& Manchester Railway. Edward Alderson, the counsel employed
by those opposing the railway, severely criticised the evidence given
This railway is the most absurd scheme
that ever entered into the head of a man to conceive. Mr. Stephenson
never had a plan - I do not believe he is capable of making one. He
is either ignorant or something else which I will not mention. His
is a mind perpetually fluctuating between opposite difficulties; he
neither knows whether he is to make bridges over roads or rivers,
or of one size or another; or to make embankments, or cuttings, or
inclined planes, or in what way the thing is to be carried into effect.
When you put a question to him upon a difficult point, he resorts
to two or three hypothesis, and never comes to a decided conclusion.
Is Mr. Stephenson to be the person upon whose faith this Committee
is to pass this Bill involving property to the extent of £400,000/£500,000
when he is so ignorant of his profession as to propose to build a
bridge not sufficient to carry off the flood water of the river or
to permit any of the vessels to pass which of necessity must pass
Robert Stephenson told Samuel
Smiles how his father liked to wrestle with his old friend, George
When my father came about the office he sometimes
did not well know what to do with himself. So he used to invite Bidder
to have a wrestle with him, for old acquaintance sake. And the two
wrestled together so often, and had so many falls (sometimes I thought
they would bring the house down between them), that they broke half
the chairs in my outer office.
John Dixon, quoted by Samuel Smiles, Life
of George Stephenson (1875)
Stephenson told me as a young man that railways will supersede almost
all other methods of conveyance in this country - when mail-coaches
will go by railway, and railroads will become the great highway for
the king and all his subjects. I know there are great and almost insurmountable
difficulties to be encountered; but what I have said will come to
pass as sure as you live.
Edward Pease, diary entry (16th August,
Left home in company with John Dixon to attend the internment of George
Stephenson at Chesterfield. I fear he died an unbeliever. When I reflect
on my first acquaintance with him and the resulting consequences my
mind seems lost in doubt as to the beneficial results - that humanity
has been benefited in the diminished use of horses and by the lessened
cruelty to them, that much ease, safety, speed, and lessened expense
in travelling is obtained, but as to the results and effects of all
that railways had led my dear family into, being in any sense beneficial
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