© Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library
Puffing Billy is the oldest surviving steam railway locomotive in the world. The first locomotives were not built for passengers, but hauled coal and other minerals at little more than walking pace. Puffing Billy worked for nearly half a century on a five-mile stretch of railway between Wylam Colliery, near Newcastle upon Tyne, and Lemington, on the bank of the River Tyne. There the coal was transferred on to barges for delivery around the coast.
The locomotive was designed and built at Wylam by William Hedley, assisted by Timothy Hackworth and Jonathan Forster. Before starting, Hedley carried out experiments which proved that the adhesion between a smooth wheel and a smooth rail was sufficient to haul heavy loads. However, it was found that the four-wheel locomotives they built were too heavy for the track then in use and they soon rebuilt them as eight-wheelers.
After improved track was laid Puffing Billy was rebuilt back to a four-wheeler in about 1830. It continued in service until June 1862 when Edward Blackett, the owner of Wylam Colliery, lent it to the Patent Office Museum, South Kensington. He later offered to sell it, and two years of acrimonious correspondence ensued before a purchase price of £200 was agreed.
Source: Captain E A Blackett