Steaming Through History


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This post is intended to accompany my story for this week’s Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers (here). Having a grandson like Kieran (now sixteen) who has been mad about steam engines since losing interest in Thomas the Tank Engine when he was four…


… we’ve had a good few years to visit lots of places where steam locomotives can be seen. Such places include museums and historical, working railways and associated events. We also dash to Newark, Lincoln or Grantham stations when particular engines are passing through. It’s amazing how many steam fanatics do the same thing. These events are always packed.

So, here is a quick look at the history of steam locomotives…

Steam locomotives were first developed in Britain in the early 19th century. Their use transformed the world, carrying people and goods at hitherto unthinkable speeds around the globe, and dominating railway transport until the middle of the 20th century, when they were replaced by diesel and electric locomotives.

The creation of steam locomotives began with the development of the steam engine. In 1698, Thomas Savery patented a machine that used steam to pump water out of the mines. His design was later improved by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and further still by James Watt in 1763. It was Watt’s improvements to the steam engine that led the way to the steam locomotive.

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Newcomen Steam Engine. Author: Newton henry Black, Harvey Nathaniel Davis. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

The first steam locomotive was made by Richard Trevithick in 1804. It was called the Puffing Eagle. Trevithick was a tall, strong Cornishman, described by his schoolmaster as ‘obstinate and inattentive’, who learnt his craft in the Cornish tin mines. He later moved to South America before dying penniless at the age of 62. But his idea was developed by others, and by 1845, 2,440 miles of railway were open – used by 30 million passengers in Britain alone.

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Painting of Richard Trevithic. engineer, !816. Author: John Linnell. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

Another well-known early locomotive was the Puffing Billy built by engineer William Hedley in 1813-14 and is the oldest one preserved, and on display in the Science Museum in London.

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Puffing Billy (the oldest surviving steam locomotive in the UK). Location : Science Museum, London. Author: Arkady Rose. Creative Commons.

George Stephenson built the Locomotion for the Stockton and Darlington Railway in north-east England, the first public steam railway in the world. In 1829 he built The Rocket, which won the Rainhill Trials and established his company as the foremost builder of steam engines used on railways in the UK, US, and much of Europe.

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Stephenson’s Rocket drawing. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

The first steam locomotive to run in the U.S. was shipped from Britain and called the Stourbridge Lion. It was ordered for transporting coal but, at 7.5 tons, it was too heavy for the tracks which were intended to hold 4 tons. Another locomotive imported from Britain was the John Bull.  

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First run of the Stourbridge Lion, August 8, 1829, in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Painted 1916. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

The first steam locomotive built in America was the Tom Thumb, which had its first run in 1830 on the Baltimore and Ohio railroads. It carried 36 passengers and travelled at 18mph.

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Replica of Tom Thumb, first American built locomotive designed by Peter Cooper. Author: E.T. Kenney. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

The first railway service in Continental Europe was opened in May, 1835, in Belgium, between Mechelenand and Brussels. The locomotive was The Elephant.

Today, most steam locomotives still in use are for historical, educational or entertainment purposes. Railway museums have many interesting exhibits, and I have a post to do sometime on the National Railway Museum in York, which I visited (yet again!) two weeks  ago with Kieran and other family members. We’ve come a long way since Trevithick launched his first practical steam locomotive in 1804. Today, several high-speed trains are regularly travelling 30 times faster. Japan’s first bullet trains in 1964 were capable of running at speeds more than 130mph. The world record speed today is 361mph!

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Line up of Sinkansen trains. Author: Author: User Pagemoral. Creative Commons

But Japan is no longer alone in the high-speed rail department. France, China and Germany all operate trains capable of similar extreme speeds. Plans are also underway to construct a high-speed rail line connecting the Californian cities of San Francisco and Anaheim.

Refs: Wikipedia; Custom-QR-;