Cornish-born Richard Trevithick, rightly called the father of the
railways, was a visionary of the early industrial revolution whose
imagination bubbled over with ideas, yet his business acumen was lacking and
he died in poverty unrecognized as a genius. His adventurous life was worthy
of a Rider Haggard novel and although some of his inventions were successful
in his own day many more would be adapted by others in later decades.
Trevithick’s hastily scribbled notes and designs show a restless mind.
They produced the high pressure steam engine, the Cornish boiler, the steam
dredger, a propeller and threshing machine and much more. He is revered
mostly for the Penydarren steam engine on rails pulling 10 tons of iron bars
the nine miles from Merthyr Tydfil to Abercynon in 1804. But he also
produced the first passenger carrying steam road locomotive and the world’s
first fare-paying passenger railway.
Richard Trevithick was born in 1771 at Illogen, Cornwall, the sixth and
last son of Richard Trevithick – a mine captain in the tin and copper mines
– and Ann Teague. The athletic young man grew up to be 6ft 2in and known as
the Cornish Giant. He married local girl Jane Harvey in 1797 and had six
children, some of whom became involved with rail travel in the 19th cent.
Trevithick had been interested in engineering since a youngster and
become fascinated by the possibilities of steam engines and as early as 1796
produced an engine/boiler combination. Then there was the Puffing Devil.
Local inhabitants must have fled in terror on Christmas Eve 1801 when a
fiery dragon-like contraption rattled and chugged its way up Camborne Hill.
Three days later it was left under a shelter, the fire still burning with
water boiling away while Trevithick and friends celebrated with roast goose
and drinks. The end was predictable; it blew up.
But undeterred he patented a high pressure steam engine in 1802 and a
year later the London Steam Carriage bounced its way from Holborn to
Paddington and back. It was uncomfortable and expensive.
And of course in 1804 he built what was eventually to be his greatest
contribution to transport - the Penydarren engine steaming along rails.
By 1807 he was helping in the construction of a tunnel under the Thames
at Rotherhithe and almost drowned when it flooded. The next year as part of
a steam circus south of present day Euston station he created
Catch-Me-Who-Can, an engine on a circular track. This could have been a good
money maker but failed because of weak tracks.