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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
Stories about the lives we've made

story:Constructing the railway system

scene:Constructing the railway system

Railways were by no means a new idea at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Wooden railways had been used for centuries in the mines of central Europe. In Britain, waggonways using wood rails were used in mining areas from the seventeenth century to take coal and minerals to the nearest riverside or, in later years, canalside wharf for onward shipment. Gradually the technology improved, but the speed of the waggon was still that of the horse that drew it.


Trevithick’s model locomotive, ca.1797. It was used for experiments in his kitchen at home. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science Museum and Society Picture Library

This changed in the 1790s when Richard Trevithick introduced a light and small high-pressure steam engine. Then Trevithick built a steam locomotive for the Merthyr Tramroad in south Wales in 1804. Though the locomotive was too heavy for the track, it demonstrated that steam could haul a far greater load than the horse, albeit, at that time, no faster.


In the background of George Walker’s watercolour The Collier (1814) is a rack locomotive working on the Middleton Railway, Leeds. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science Museum and Society Picture Library

Within a few years some colliery owners were financing further experiments with steam traction. The first commercially successful steam locomotives were designed in 1812 by Matthew Murray for the Middleton Colliery Railway. The power was transmitted by a gear drive to a toothed rack rail. This arrangement was designed by John Blenkinsop and enabled these locomotives to be built sufficiently light so as not to break the cast-iron rails then in use.

At around the same time Christopher Blackett, the owner of Wylam Colliery, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, encouraged his engineers William Hedley, Timothy Hackworth and Jonathan Forster to develop locomotives working on the friction between a smooth wheel and a smooth rail. One of these, Puffing Billy, began working on the five-mile Wylam Waggonway in about 1813. It was to continue in use, much rebuilt, until 1862.


The earliest known drawing of a Stephenson locomotive. It is believed to have been drawn by George Stephenson himself, and shows his 1815 design after later modification. picture zoom © National Railway Museum/Pictorial Collection

George Stephenson designed his first engine for Killingworth Colliery in 1814. He followed this with several others over the next few years as the value of steam traction began to be more widely appreciated.

This story will follow these first developments in locomotives through to the growth of the whole railway system across Britain. It will examine the decision to use steam-powered locomotives, the development of major trunk routes and the onset of railway mania.

Resource Descriptions

Trevithick’s model locomotive, ca.1797. It was used for experiments in his kitchen at home.
In the background of George Walker’s watercolour The Collier (1814) is a rack locomotive working on the Middleton Railway, Leeds.
The earliest known drawing of a Stephenson locomotive. It is believed to have been drawn by George Stephenson himself, and shows his 1815 design after later modification.
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