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BY C J Bowen-Cooke.

About the author: C J Bowen Cooke was the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the LNWR. He wrote a book entitled British Locomotives. The first Chapter covers early locomotives up to the Rainhill trials of 1829. The textual content and diagrams from that first chapter * have been transcribed from a copy of the second edition of the book dating from 1894.  As the Society aims to provide in-depth coverage of all aspects of the railway scene we bring you this long out of print work by one of Britain's early, and eminent, locomotive engineers. Although the book is out of copyright a reference to the publisher has been included here for courtesy purposes. (Whittaker & Co of London)  would also be appreciated if any quotations from this transcription also credit the SLS.


THE first self-moving locomotive engine of which there is any authenticated record was made by a Frenchman, named Nicholas Joseph Cugnot, in the year 1769. It was termed a “land-carriage,” and was designed to run on ordinary roads. There are no particulars extant of this, the very first locomotive, but in 1771 a larger engine was constructed from Cugnot’s designs, which is still preserved in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers at Paris.

Fig 1

This engine, of which Fig.1 is an illustration, was driven by two single-acting vertical cylinders, 13 in. in diameter. The steam was admitted to the cylinder by a four-way cock; and the pistons worked downwards, acting upon a ratchet-wheel on the driving-axle. Each stroke of one piston gave a quarter of a revolution to the driving-wheel. The boiler was of copper, with a fire-grate, and two rectangular flues serving as chimneys. It could only maintain steam for a quarter of an hour, and the maximum speed attained was 2 1/4’ miles per hour on a level road. The machine was fitted with a simple form of steering gear. The French Government took some interest in this notion of a steam-carriage, and voted a sum of money towards its construction, with the idea that such a machine might prove useful for military purposes. After the engine had been tried two or three times it overturned in the streets of Paris, and was then locked up in the arsenal, and thus ended its brief career.

Fig 2

In 1784 Watt took out a patent for a steam-carriage. In a letter to Mr. Boulton he mentions the following details of its proposed structure. “The boiler to be of wood or thin metal, to be secured by hoops or otherwise, to prevent its bursting from the pressure of steam”! An internal fire-box was described, and the idea of a multitubular boiler hinted at. It is thought, however, that this engine was invented and constructed by Mr. Murdoch, Watt’s assistant, and that he made it at Redruth in Cornwall, where it is supposed to have run on ordinary Cornish roads in the years 1785-86. The engine had a single vertical cylinder connected to one end of a beam, pivoted at the other end. A connecting-rod was fixed to the beam near the piston-rod, and turned a crank axle on a pair of driving-wheels. The cylinder was partly immersed in the boiler, which was heated by a furnace underneath. At the front of the engine was a third wheel working in a socket by which the engine was steered. A doubt exists as to whether this engine was ever actually built as intended, or whether the idea got no further than the model illustrated in Fig. 2, which was undoubtedly made by Murdoch, and is now preserved in the possession of Messrs. Tangye Bros., Birmingham. Watt himself had no faith in the proposal to adapt steam to locomotive carriages, and did not personally follow up the idea; indeed, Murdoch got into trouble with his employers for having given so much of his time to this subject, instead of devoting himself entirely to the Soho engineering business.

In 1786 William Symington, a Scotchman, constructed a model of a steam-carriage, but nothing was done to turn his ideas to any practical account.

Fig 3

In 1802 we first hear of Richard trevithick as a pioneer of locomotive engineering. In that year, with his cousin Vivian, he took out a patent for a high-pressure engine and its application to steam-carriages, and in the same year he made a model of a steam-carriage (Fig 3), the original of which is now in the South Kensington Museum.

Fig 4

In 1803 trevithick constructed an engine (illustrated in Fig. 4) which worked on a cast-iron tram-road at Merthyr Tydvil. This was probably the first locomotive of which any practical use was made. It had 8 in. horizontal cylinders and a stroke of 4 ft 6 in. The piston, to which a connecting-rod was attached, acted upon an arrangement of geared spur-wheels. As there was only one cylinder, the engine was fitted with a fly-wheel, to assist it over the dead points. The driving wheels worked simply by adhesion to a smooth tram-way. The engine is said to have done useful service at Pen-y-darren Works, and was capable of drawing ten tons of bar-iron, besides the carriages, at a speed of nine miles an hour. It is stated on good authority that the exhaust steam from the cylinders was turned into the chimney, and that trevithick therefore was the original inventor of the blast, one of the most indispensable elements in the working of modern locomotives.

trevithick himself took out no patent for the blast, probably not realizing the vast importance of an arrangement which he perhaps adopted merely as the most convenient way of getting rid of the waste steam from the cylinders. The machine was considered to be a commercial failure, and little or nothing was heard of it after the year 1804.

trevithick also made a model of a steam-coach, which he exhibited about 1804-5 in London, on the site of the present London and North-Western Railway terminus at Euston. Wearied, however, with the apathy of those whom he expected to take an interest in the furtherance of his projects he took his machine away, and nothing more was heard of it. trevithick made another engine in 1809 for the Wylam Railway, but this does not appear to have ever been used.

Fig 5

In 1811 Matthew Murray, of Leeds, constructed a Locomotive (illustrated in Fig. 5) for Mr. John Blenkinsop (of the Middleton Colliery, near Leeds), which was put to work in August 1812. Blenkinsop took out a patent for increasing the tractive force by means of a pinion working in a rack-rail. The boiler was cylindrical, with convex ends; there were two vertical double-acting cylinders, 8 in., in diameter with a stroke of 20 in., with pistons acting on cranks working at right angles to each other, which remain the arrangement adopted universally at the present day. Several of these engines were built and proved capable of drawing 94 tons on a level road at 3 1/2 miles an hour, the maximum speed attained with a light load being ten miles an hour. They were inspected in 1816 by the Grand Duke Nicholas afterwards Emperor of Russia, and there is evidence of their being still at work in 1831. Murray’s engines may therefore lay claim to be the first engines permanently applied to railways on a commercial basis.

In the meantime, other brains had been at work on the locomotive. Mr. Blackett, the proprietor of Wylam Colliery near Newcastle-on-Tyne, wrote to trevithick on the subject; and in 1811 one of the latter’s engines was sent from Cornwall to Newcastle. It was, however, never used as a locomotive, but was subsequently employed as a stationary engine. A very primitive machine it must have been, as George Stephenson, who had never before seen a locomotive, upon inspecting it declared he could make a better one himself. William Hedley, Mr. Blackett’s colliery inspector, set to work to construct a locomotive, having before him trevithick’s engines, and one of Blenkinsop’s, which had been sent to work on the Wylam Railway would have coat about £8000, in addition to the expenses involved by adopting his patent. Hedley seems to have understood the insufficiency of adhesion between the rails and the driving wheels of light engines; yet he determined to adopt the system of direct acting driving-wheels, and to find means to overcome the difficulty. The result of his labours was that in 1813 he produced an engine which worked by the friction of its driving-wheels on smooth rails.

The engine had a cast-iron boiler, with a single internal flue and one cylinder. Its performance was not altogether satisfactory, but was sufficient to encourage Mr. Blackett to commission Hedley to make another and better engine.

Fig 6

Benefiting by previous experience, Hedley constructed a second engine (Fig. 6), in which he embodied many improvements upon his previous venture. It had a wrought-iron boiler with a return flue, the chimney being at the same end as the fire-hole door. There were two vertical cylinders working on two large beams over the top of the boiler. The beams were connected to a crank underneath the boiler, which communicated the motion by toothed gearing to four wheels of equal diameter working by adhesion to the rails. This engine was the famous “Puffing Billy,” which is now preserved in the South Kensington Museum.

In 1815 Hedley constructed more powerful engines on the same principle, with eight wheels all geared together, in which, as well as in the engines constructed by trevithick and Murray, the steam-pressure was 50 lbs. to the square inch.

Next in order among the great pioneers of locomotive development comes George Stephenson. He was at this time employed at the Killingworth Colliery, and had carefully watched the working of Hedley's engines since their first introduction on the Wylam Railway.

In 1814 a locomotive built under Stephenson’s supervision was turned out of Killingworth Works. It was made on the lines adopted by Hedley, and had vertical cylinders and toothed-gearing communicating the motion to the driving-wheels. The engine was capable of drawing eight loaded waggons weighing 30 tons up an incline of 1 in 450 at the rate of four miles an hour; its average speed was, however, only three miles an hour. After a year’s trial the locomotive was found to compare unfavourably with horse-power in point of economy, and altogether the results of its working are said not to have been so good as those of Hedley’s or Murray’s engines.

Fig 7


In 1815 Stephenson constructed another engine (illustrated in Fig. 7). It also had vertical cylinders; these were immersed in the boiler, one at each end. Each piston-rod was connected to the centre of a long cross-head or arm, stretching right across the whole width of the engine, and connected by rods to cranks fixed to each wheel. It was intended to coupling-rods working on crank axles, but this idea was abandoned, and the wheels were coupled by an endless chain.

Some years after, the Killingworth engines were improved and simplified in several details. They were mounted on springs, and the wheels coupled by outside connecting-rods.

During the ten years succeeding 1815, no great strides were made in the development of the locomotive, but its
practical application was an accomplished fact, for steam locomotive engines were actually working in lieu of horses on various colliery lines. They were, however, of such clumsy construction, and had so many defects, that their superiority to horse-power, either as regards utility or economy, was by no means established.

Nevertheless, during this period the locomotive question was exercising the minds of many engineers, and a variety of designs were brought out. These appear to have chiefly related to proposals for constructing steam land-carriages, as they were called, for working on ordinary roads. Several of these proposals were carried into effect with more or less success, but the final result of all experiments was to show that locomotives that ran on railway lines were the only kind likely to prove of any practical value.

Still, some of these land-carriages display great ingenuity on the part of their inventors, and although perhaps they had not much to do with the subsequent development of the locomotive, they may be touched upon as interesting, because they show the ideas people had on this question at the time.

In 1821 Julius Griffiths, of Brompton, Middlesex, constructed a steam-coach. The body of the carriage, which was guided by a lever acting on the fore-wheels, was to carry passengers and goods; whilst the active machinery - consisting of two vertical cylinders a boiler with metal pipes, furnace, condenser, and other appendages - was situated in the rear of the conveyance. The power was communicated by rods connected with toothed-wheels geared to the hind-wheels. It is a question whether this engine was ever brought to a sufficient stage of completion to make a run at all.

Fig 8

Messrs. Burstall & Hill, of London, constructed a steam-coach (Fig 8), which was made the subject of various experimental trials. The greatest speed attained was from three to four miles an hour, and there were repeated failures through defects in the boiler. The general arrangement of the machinery of this engine was the same as that of the “Perseverance,” which was entered by Mr. Burstall for the Rainhill contest in 1829. The following descriptions appears in an old number of the Edinburgh Journal of Science - “A represents the boiler, which is formed of a stout cast-iron or other suitable metal flue, enclosed in a wrought-iron or copper case, as seen in section, where A is the place for fuel, and a a a are parts of the flue, the top being formed into a number of shallow trays or receptacles for containing a small quantity of water in a state of being converted into steam, which is admitted from the reservoir by a small pipe. B is the chimney, arising from the centre flue; at D are the two cylinders, one behind the other, which are fitted up with pistons and valves, or cocks, in the usual way for the alternate, action of steam above and below the pistons.

“The boiler being suspended on springs, the steam is conveyed from it to the engines through the helical pipe c -, which has that form given to it to allow the vibration of the boiler without injury to the steam joints. E is the cistern containing water for one stage, say fifty to eighty gallons, and is made of strong copper, and air-tight, to sustain a pressure of about 60 pounds to the square inch. At e is one or more air-pumps, which are worked by the beams (F F) of the engines, and are used to force air into the water vessel, that its pressure may drive out, by a convenient pipe, the water into the boiler at such times and in such quantities as may be wanted. The two beams are connected at one end by the piston-rods, and at the other with rocking standards (H H). At about quarter of the length of the beams from the piston-rods are the two connecting-rods, g g their lower ends being attached to two cranks formed at angles 90 degrees from each other on the hind axle, giving, by the action of the steam, a continued rotary motion to the wheels, without the necessity of a fly-wheel. The four coach-wheels are attached to the axles nearly as in common coaches, except that there is a ratchet-wheel formed upon the back part of the nave with a box wedged into the axle containing a dog or pall, with a spring on the back of it, for the purpose of causing the wheels to be impelled when the axle revolves, and at the same time allowing the outer wheel, when the carriage describes a curve, to travel faster than the inner one, and still be ready to receive the impulse of the engine as soon as it comes to a straight course.

“The patentees have another method of performing the same operation, with the further advantage of backing the coach when the engines arc backed. In this plan the naves are cast with a recess in the middle, in which is a double bevel clutch, the inside of the nave being formed to correspond. The clutches are simultaneously acted upon by connecting levers and springs, which, according as they are forced to the right or left, will enable the carriage to be moved forward or backward.

“To the fore naves arc fixed two cylindrical metal rings, round which are two friction bends, to be tightened by a lever convenient for the foot of the conductor, and which will readily retard or stop the coach when descending hills. K is the seat of the conductor, with the steering-wheel (L) in the front, which is fastened on the small upright shaft (I), and turns the two bevel pinions (2) and the shaft (3), with its small pinion (4) which, working into a rack on the segment of a circle on the fore carriage, gives full power to place the two axles at any angle necessary for causing the carriage to turn on the road, the centre of motion being the perch-pin (I).

“The fore and hind carriage are connected together by a perch, which is bolted fast at one end by the fork, and at the other end is screwed by two collars, which permit the fore and hind wheels to adapt themselves to the curve of the road.

“To ascend steep parts of the road, and particularly when the carriage is used on railways, or to drag another behind it, greater friction will be required on the road than the two hind wheels will give, and there is therefore a contrivance to turn all the four wheels. This is done by a pair of mitre wheels (4) one being on the hind axle, and the other on the longitudinal shaft (6), on which shaft is a universal joint, directly on the perch-pin (I) at (7). This enables the small shaft (7) to be turned, though the carriage should be on the lock. At one end of the shaft (7) is one of a pair of bevel wheels, the other being on the fore axles, which wheels are in the same proportion to one another as the fore and hind wheels of the carnage are, and this causes their circumference to move on the ground at the same speed.

“The patentees, by a peculiar construction of boiler, intend to make it a store of caloric; they propose to heat it from 250 to 500 or 800 degrees Fahrenheit, and by keeping the water in a separate vessel, and only applying it to the boiler when steam is wanted, they hope to accomplish that great desideratum in the application of steam to common roads, of making just such a quantity of steam as is wanted, so that when going down-hill, where the gravitating force will be enough to impel the carriage all the steam and heat may be saved, to be accumulating and given out again at the first hill or bad piece of road, when, more being wanted, more will be expended.

“The engines are what are called high-pressure, and capable of working to ten-horse power, and the steam is purposed to be let off into an intermediate vessel, that the sound emitted may be regulated by one or more cocks.”

In 1824 Mr. W. H. James brought out designs for a steam carriage, and in 1826 Mr. Goldsworth constructed one. This latter actually made several journeys at the ordinary speed of stage-coaches. The motive power was partly from propellers and partly from a cranked axle on the hind wheels.

Fig 9

An interesting specimen of a steam-coach was built by Mr. David Gordon about this time, of which an illustration is given in Fig. 9. It was worked entirely by propellers, which were supposed to act in the same way as the hind-legs of a horse, being alternately forced out against the ground backwards, and drawn up again. The front wheels were actuated by a hand steering-gear. The propellers were driven off a six-throw crank in the body of the carriage. ‘The rods of the propellers were iron tubes filled with wood “to combine lightness with strength”! Other steam-coaches were brought out about this period, but probably the reader thinks enough time has already been given to the recital of these crude ideas, which to us, with our knowledge of the development of the seventy years that, followed, and the present perfection of railway locomotives, seem childish. We will therefore resume the history of what we may call the “legitimate locomotive,” remembering, however, that the inventors of these wonderfully-conceived land-carriages had no such previous experience to guide them, and giving them at any rate the credit of their inventive genius, which was of a strikingly original character.

We now come to the time when Timothy Hackworth’s name first comes to the fore in connection with the locomotive. He was originally employed on the Wylam Railway, and had personally assisted in the construction of the “Puffing Billy.” In 1824 he was manager of Stephenson’s Locomotive factory at Newcastle, and in June 1825 was appointed manager of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which was opened for passenger and goods traffic in September of that year, an important date in the history of railways and locomotives. To Mr. Edward Pease of Stockton belongs the honour of bringing this undertaking to a successful issue. The opposition to railways at the commencement of their career is now a matter of history, and we can only look back with astonishment at the short-sightedness of our grandfathers; yet we must remember that the views of the general public were guided by persons who were supposed to be experts in engineering science, the majority of whom in their narrow-minded ignorance and lack of enterprise, did all they could to stamp as folly the ideas of such men as George Stephenson and the other early promoters of railways and steam locomotion.

Averting to the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which took place in September 1825 Mr. Henry Pease’s speech at the jubilee celebration fifty years after may be quote. he said - “ The scene on the morning of that day sets description at defiance. Many who were to take part in the event ‘did not the night before sleep a wink, and soon after midnight were astir. The universal cheers, the happy faces of many, the vacant stare of astonishment of others, and the alarm depicted on the countenances of some, gave variety to the picture.

“At the appointed hour the procession went forward. The train moved off at the rate of from ten to twelve miles an hour with a weight of eighty tons, with one engine, No.1, driven by George Stephenson himself; after it six waggons loaded with coals and flour; then a covered coach containing directors and proprietors; next twenty-one coal-waggons fitted up for passengers, with which they were crammed; and lastly, six more waggons loaded with coals.

“Off started the procession with the horseman at its head. A great concourse of people stood along the line. Many of them tried to accompany it by running, and some gentlemen on horseback galloped across the fields to keep up with the engine. The railway descending with a gentle incline towards Darlington, the rate of speed was consequently variable. At a favourable part of the road, Stephenson determined to try the speed of the engine, and he called upon the horseman with the flag to get out of the way, and Stephenson put on the speed to twelve miles, and then to fifteen miles an hour, and the runners on foot, the gentlemen on horseback, and the horseman with the flag were soon left far behind. When the train reached Darlington, it was found that 450 passengers occupied the waggons, and that the load of men, coal, and merchandise amounted to about ninety tons.”

Fig 10

The line, after being opened, was worked partly by stationary engines and horse-power, but chiefly by five locomotives, of which four were from Stephenson’s factory. After an experience of two years, it was still a matter of discussion which method was the most satisfactory and economical; and it is said that in 1827 a proposition was before the directors to abandon locomotives altogether in favour of horse traction. In this year Hackworth had in the shops one of the company’s locomotives constructed by Wilson of Newcastle, and he set to work to alter and improve it. This engine, of which Fig. 10 is an illustration, was turned out in its re-built state in October 1827, and was called the “Royal George.” It is described in Mr. Colburn’s book on Locomotive Engineering : - “The boiler was a plain cylinder, 13 ft. long and 4 ft 4 in. in diameter. The return flue of the Wylam engines was adopted, and a liberal amount of heating surface thus obtained. There were six coupled wheels, 4 ft. in diameter, and the cylinders, which were placed vertically at the end opposite to the fire-place, were 11 in. in diameter, the stroke of the pistons being 20 in.; the piston-rods worked downwards, and were connected to the first pair of wheels. These were without springs, so that the pistons should not jump the engine up and down, but the middle and back pairs of wheels carried their load through stout springs.

“Separate smoke-boxes had not then been provided, and the orifices of the exhaust steam pipes opened into the chimney 4 ft. or 5 ft. above the bend. In the single-flue Stephenson engines, the part of the chimney between the bend and the mouth of the exhaust-pipe was often red-hot. The ‘Royal George’ had a cistern into which a portion of the exhaust steam could be turned to heat the feed-water; it had also short stroke force pumps worked by eccentrics, adjustable springs instead of weights upon the safety-valves, and a single lever reversing-gear. Most, if not all, of these features were novelties first introduced in this engine. Its maximum performance was that of drawing thirty-two loaded waggons, weighing about 130 tons, at the rate of five miles an hour on the level portions of the line, the speed increasing on gentle descents to nine miles an hour. Its ordinary load in summer was twenty-four loaded waggons, weighing 100 tons; returning with thirty empty waggons weighing forty-five tons, with which load it ascended gradients varying from 1 in 450 to 1 in 100.

“In Messrs. Rastrick and Walker’s report to the directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, March 7, 1829, it was stated, upon the authority of Mr. Robert Stephenson, that this engine had drawn 48 3/4 tons of goods (exclusive of waggons) for a distance of 2500 yards, rising 10 ft. per mile, and descended again, the average rate of speed over the whole distance both ways being 11.2 miles per hour. Messrs. Rastrick and Walker gave the weight of the engine and tender taken together as fifteen tons, and stated its regular summer load to be 71 1/2 tons on a level at five miles an hour. Estimating, erroneously no doubt, that the tractive force of the engine was inversely proportional to its speed, they considered it capable of drawing only 28 ¼ tons regularly at ten miles an hour.”1

1 The Locomotive, by Colburn, p. 21