The Magic of Cornwall
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Richard Trevithick 1771 - 1833

Of all the Sons of Cornwall who have made a name for themselves beyond the narrow confines of our border, probably the most famous is Richard Trevithick. His achievements at the time were often overshadowed by others; his abilities were scarcely acknowledged and financial reward for his efforts was practically non-existent. However in recent years his work and inventions have become internationally acknowledged and he is now regarded as the father of the steam locomotive.

Richard Trevithick was born in 1771 at Illogan, about a mile from the Dalcoath Mine. He spent his school years at Camborne School where he excelled at sport, while his academic work, apart from an arithmetic aptitude at this time was not of any great note. His early years were notable for his sporting achievements, he grew to a height of six feet two inches and he was renowned for his prowess at Cornish wrestling. He was also known to have been able to toss a sledge hammer over the tops of the engine houses and to have been able to swing by his thumbs from a beam with a half hundredweight hanging from his thumbs. His nickname of the time was ´The Cornish Giant´

His father was Engineer at the Wheel Treasury Mine, and Trevithick went to work for him there and it was at this time that he revealed a talent for engineering. By 1792 he was promoted to Chief Engineer at Tincroft, later moving to the Ding Dong Mine in 1796. In his position as engineer he made numerous improvements to the existing steam engine equipment, and the main thrust of his experiments in this sphere were to improve the efficiency of the steam engine, thereby cutting down on fuel consumption and increasing output.

Cornish mines at this time had the greatest concentration of steam driven power of anywhere in the world. Most mines used low pressure steam driven engines to power the pumps which kept the mines from flooding. These engines were designed and built by companies such as Boulton and Watt, they were heavily patented and expensive to purchase and run and this provided the impetus for Trevithick to experiment.

His first experiments were with models, moving on to full-size engines where he pioneered the use of high pressure steam. The use of high pressure steam was regarded as highly dangerous, causing James Watt to exclaim that Trevithick ´deserved to be hung´. His early stationery engines were highly successful and they became known as ´Puffers´ on account of the noise they made.

Following on from this success Trevithick began to formulate ideas for building a steam engine that could provide power for its own locomotion and by 1801 he had designed and built the worlds first steam-propelled road locomotive to carry passengers. It was named ´Captain Dick´s Puffer´ and its first run took place in Camborne on Christmas Eve. Trevithick and some friends took the locomotive from Rosewarne to Beacon Hill, the last part of the journey being celebrated in the song ´Going Up Camborne Hill´. A successful test was marred by the engine's boiler blowing up while parked outside the hostelry where Trevithick and friends had retired to celebrate; Trevithick had omitted to keep the boiler topped up with water and it had boiled dry!

Richard Trevithick was not deterred by this minor setback and in 1802 he patented his ´London Road Carriage´ which ran several times in London where Trevithick had taken it in order to promote the invention. However it was not a great success and Trevithick began to turn his attention to a steam-driven railway locomotive. By 1804 he had moved to South Wales where he worked for Mr Samuel Bonfray, the owner of the local Penydaren Ironworks and it was here that he invented the worlds first steam engine to run successfully on rails. The maiden journey was a distance of nine miles from the Ironworks at Penydaren to the Merthyr Cardiff canal, carring a payload of ten tons of iron, seventy passengers and five wagons. Top speed attained was nearly five miles per hour. Trevithick´s innovation with this locomotive was to turn the exhaust steam up the chimney to produce a draught which drew the hot gases from the fire through the boiler with greater efficiency so producing a hotter flame.

Despite it´s initial success Trevithicks engine at over seven tons proved to be too heavy for the cast-iron rails, which on practically every trip broke with the weight, and so this project was eventually abandoned. Trevithick was next employed by Christopher Blackett, owner of the Wylam Colliery in Northumberland. A five mile wooden wagonway had been built in 1748 and Blackett wanted to employ a steam locomotive to replace the horse drawn transport of coal wagons. The locomotive Trevithick built for Blackett weighed in at five tons and this proved too heavy for the wooden rails.

Trevithick returned to Cornwall, but continued to invent and experiment culminating in the locomotive known as the ´Catch Me Who Can´. In 1808 Trevithick took the locomotive to London and erected a circular railway in Euston Square and during the summer charged passengers 1 shilling (or 5p) to ride on his railway, another first for Trevithick, as the first fare paying railway in the world. However this locomotive also proved too heavy for the rails and the experiment was abandoned.

By now Trevithick´s financial resources were exhausted, backers and sponsors were deterred by the lack of success and Trevithick was forced to find alternative employment. He found work with a London dredging company which paid him to develop a steam dredger to work on the River Thames. Life was difficult at this time for Trevithick, the steam dredger he invented was not a great money spinner and eventually he accepted work as engineer in a silver mine in Peru. Profits from a successful series of steam engines enabled him to purchase his own silver mines. However success was short-lived as in 1826 war broke out and he was forced to flee, abandoning his steam engines and silver mines. He eventually arrived in Columbia where he met Robert Stephenson, son of George Stephenson who generously gave Trevithick the fare to return to England.

Back in England and penniless he continued to work on new ideas including the invention of a form of propeller for steamboats, an improved marine boiler, a gun-carriage and a form of central heating for houses. He also proposed a 1000 foot cast-iron column to be erected to commemorate the Reform Act of 1832. None of these schemes received financial backing and he died in extreme poverty on 22nd April 1833 at The Bull Inn at Dartford.

On one level we may regard Trevithicks career as described above as a failure. He didn´t enjoy the financial rewards and acclaim like some of his contemporaries such as George and Robert Stephenson. However his inventive mind and genius has assured him a place in the pantheon of Great British Inventors for all time.


The Trevithick Society

Camborne Trevithick Day