Richard Trevithick

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Richard Trevithick, portrayed by John Linnell (1816)

Richard Trevithick (born April 13, 1771 in Illogan , Cornwall , † April 22, 1833 in Dartford ) was a British inventor , engineer and mechanical engineer . He developed the first functional steam locomotives .

Childhood and youth

Trevithick was the youngest of six children and the only son of Richard Trevithick Sr., a mining engineer who worked at the Dolcoath Mine. He went to school in Camborne but was more interested in sports than homework (with the exception of arithmetic, for which he showed a talent). One of his teachers described him as slow, disobedient, stubborn, spoiled, often absent, and extremely inattentive . As a child he often had the opportunity to watch the steam engines pumping water from the tin and copper mines common in Cornwall . For a while, the steam car pioneer William Murdoch was his neighbor.

Trevithick's first job, aged 19, was at the East Stray Park Mine. He was quickly promoted to advisor, unusual for a person his age. He dealt with the construction and modification of steam engines, which was initially made more difficult by the fact that James Watt had a patent for the use of a separate condenser until 1800 and was not prepared to license it to competing engineers. In 1797 he married Jane Harvey from Hayle , with whom he had six children.

High pressure machines

Trevithick dealt with increasing experience with the improvement of the steam engine, in particular with its downsizing and the production of stronger steam boilers , which delivered higher steam pressures and therefore brought more power. This application of high-pressure steam (the name used to describe steam that was above atmospheric pressure) is widely regarded as Trevithick's most important invention.

In 1797 Trevithick built his first steam car model . The boiler was heated with the help of a glowing cast iron rod which was inserted into the flame tube instead of the real furnace. In 1801 he put one of his new small steam engines on wheels in Camborne. This road locomotive , known as the Puffing Devil , was one of the first known road vehicles to run on its own , along with Nicholas Cugnot's 1769 steam car. The Puffing Devil carried passengers at a speed of 8 km / h, even on inclines.

London Steam Carriage

However, the vehicle could only hold the steam pressure for a short time, so it was of little practical use. However, it contained an important invention in the history of the steam locomotive: While the patent specification provided for a bellows to start the fire, Trevithick lets the steam from the cylinder exhaust blow off through the chimney. With the pull produced by this blowpipe , the firing was particularly effective. This invention soon fell into oblivion and was only installed in his locomotives again in 1816 by George Stephenson .

In 1803 Trevithick built another self-propelled vehicle, the London Steam Carriage , which was basically a stagecoach equipped with a steam engine . It caught the attention of the public and the press, but was much more expensive to operate than an ordinary horse-drawn carriage and therefore could not prevail.

Also in 1803 one of Trevithick's stationary machines exploded in Greenwich, killing four workers. Trevithick did not attribute the accident to a faulty design, but to incorrect operation. He came into sharp opposition to James Watt, who had always warned of the danger of boiler explosions. Watt's attempt to get the British Parliament to ban Trevithick's machines was unsuccessful.

The world's first locomotive

Drawing of the Trevithicks locomotive from 1802

In 1802 Trevithick built a high pressure machine for the Pen-y-Darren ironworks near Merthyr Tydfil in Wales . He attached it to a chassis and turned it into a locomotive. He sold the patent in 1803 to Samuel Homfray, the owner of the ironworks. Homfray was so impressed that he made a bet with another ironworks owner that the locomotive could pull ten tons of iron on the railroad to Abercynon , over a distance of 15.7 km.

The bet could be redeemed on February 21, 1804: Trevithick's locomotive pulled 10 tons of iron, five wagons and 70 men over the entire distance and required 4 hours and 5 minutes, which corresponded to an average speed of approx. 3.8 km / h . Without a load, the machine should have reached 25 km / h. A particularly noticeable feature of this machine was a large flywheel, with which the design of stationary machines was adopted. The now tried and tested blowpipe was also used on her.

Although it worked, the locomotive was unsuccessful because it was too heavy for the cast iron rails designed for horse-drawn wagons. After five months, their mobile operation was stopped; the machine was only used as a stationary system. Trevithick delivered additional locomotives to various mine works. One of them was even supposed to operate at the Wylam Coal Railway near George Stephenson's birthplace. However, it is not known whether it was put into service.

Projects in London

In 1805 Robert Vazie was commissioned to build a tunnel under the Thames in the London borough of Rotherhithe . Repeated water ingress hindered the construction work considerably, whereupon Trevithick was hired as a consultant. The tunnel directors promised him £ 5,000 if he succeeded in completing the 366 meter long tunnel. Construction work resumed in August 1807 under Trevithick's direction. After erupting 285 meters, water ingress occurred on December 23. When 312 meters were reached a month later, the entire tunnel was flooded. Trevithick was the last to leave the tunnel and nearly drowned. A little later the company gave up the project. It was not until 1843 that Marc Isambard Brunel succeeded in completing the Thames Tunnel a little further upstream , the world's first underwater tunnel.

Catch me who can (1808)

In 1808 Trevithick built a new, simplified type of steam locomotive and brought it to London. It no longer had a flywheel, but a stationary cylinder that acted directly on the drive wheels via a crank rod; a drive system that would later prevail except for the standing cylinder. The catch me who can ran on a circular path at what is now Euston station and was more intended to amuse the public. When the public's interest waned and the locomotive derailed and overturned while driving, Trevithick lost interest in it after only two months. He sold them to a cutler.

The inventor of the steam locomotive turned to other projects. He invented steam cranes , steam dredgers , screw propellers , iron tanks for storing provisions and water on ships, floating docks , iron buoys and threshing machines . In May 1810 Trevithick fell ill with typhus and almost died from it. In 1811 he and his partner Robert Dickinson had to file for bankruptcy. Trevithick returned to Cornwall, continued to work on his inventions and was able to repay his debts by 1814.

South America

In 1816 Trevithick traveled to Peru and built lightweight steam pumps for draining the silver mines at high altitudes, which could be broken down into individual parts and transported over the steep mountain paths with mules. After he had acquired a few mining rights, great merits were finally in prospect. In the turmoil of the Civil War, he had to abandon a £ 5,000 worth of ore. Trevithick decided in 1826 to flee South America.

Trevithick met in the port of Cartagena on Robert Stephenson , who gave him 50 pounds for the crossing. In October 1827 Trevithick arrived in England completely penniless. He worked on some projects again, but then fell ill with pneumonia and died a week later, completely impoverished and lonely. The burial costs for the poor grave in Dartford cemetery were paid for by workers at a factory who sold some of his patents.

The genius of Trevithick's inventions was not properly appreciated until late.


  • Anthony Burton: Richard Trevithick - Giant of Steam. Aurum Press, London 2000. ISBN 1-85410-878-6 .
  • LTC Rolt The Cornish giant: the story of Richard Trevithick, father of the steam locomotive. Lutterworth Press 1960.
  • Chronicle of the Railway, Volume 1, beginnings 1690 to 1835 . Heel, Königswinter 2005. ISBN 978-3-89880-413-4 .

Web links

Commons : Richard Trevithick  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files