xxxxxThe French military engineer Nicholas Joseph Cugnot produced the first self-propelled road vehicle in 1769 (G3a), but it was the Cornish inventor Richard Trevithick who produced the first workable steam carriage for both road and rail. He had little education, but as a boy showed a rare talent in mechanical engineering. In the 1790s he made Watt’s steam engine smaller and more efficient by using high pressure steam. In 1801 he produced the first practical steam-powered locomotive for road transport, and then in 1804 invented the first steam engine to run on rails. It carried 10 tons of iron ore and 70 passengers a distance of nine miles. Apart from his “Cornish pumping engines”, he adapted steam power to drive an iron-rolling mill, a dredger, a threshing machine, and the paddle wheels on a barge. He spent some years in Latin America, and returned to find that his inventions had been used by others to establish the beginnings of steam transport. As we shall see, in 1825 (G4) the English engineer George Stephenson was to open the world’s first public railway, powered by a steam locomotive.


(G3a, G3b, G3c, G4, W4)


Trevithick: detail, by the English portrait painter John Linnell (1792-1882), 1816 – Science Museum, London. Puffing Devil: original is on view in the Science Museum, London. Steam Circuit: watercolour by the English cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson – Science Museum, London. Catch-Me-Who-Can: drawing from an entrance ticket to Trevithick’s “Steam Circuit”, summer 1808. Evans: an artistic reconstruction, contained in The Boston Mechanic, and Journal of the Useful Arts and Sciences, 1834 – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington. Gurney: by the British engraver Henry Pyall (1795-1833), after a work by the British artist George Morton (1851-1904), from Volume III of The Carriage Builders and Harness Makers’ Art Journal, published in 1861 – Science Museum, London.

xxxxxAs we have seen, the French military engineer Nicholas Joseph Cugnot produced the first self-propelled road vehicle in 1769 (G3a), using a two-piston engine. Crude and cumbersome though it was, it is rightly regarded as the first automobile. Then in 1784 the English engineer William Murdock made a working model of a steam carriage. But it was left to the Cornish inventor and mechanical engineer Richard Trevithick (illustrated) to produce the first workable steam carriage for both road and rail.

xxxxxTrevithick was born at Illogan, near Camborne in Cornwall, England, and living in a tin-mining area as a boy, became fascinated by the mining machinery and the steam engines that worked the drainage pumps. A virtual failure at school, and the despair of his father, a mine manager, he nonetheless showed an exceptional ability in mechanical engineering. Studying the cumbersome Watt engine, then in general use, he produced a much lighter, smaller engine by using high-pressure steam, a method that Watt had considered too dangerous. The result was the “Cornish pumping engine”, manufactured by local engineers and proving much more efficient, economical and compact. In the 1790s he built 30 of these “puffer whims”, and by the turn of the century they were rapidly replacing Watt’s engines in mine and factory.

xxxxxIt was in 1801 that Trevithick built the first practical steam-powered locomotive for road transport. Designed to carry passengers and appropriately named “The Puffing Devil” (illustrated), it made its maiden and, as it proved, only run on Christmas eve. It carried several passengers up a hill in Camborne, and then its engine promptly burnt out. The following year, however, he drove a larger version of his steam-powered carriage from Cornwall to London, sometimes reaching a speed of 12 mph. Then in 1804 came the first steam engine to run on rails, made possible by the use of the more powerful and much less bulky high-pressure boiler. Running on lines used by horse-drawn trains at a mine in Wales, it proved able to haul five wagons, ten tons of iron ore and 70 passengers over a distance of about nine miles from Merthyr Tydfil to Abercynon. The following year a similar vehicle was built at Gateshead, and then in 1808 Trevithick took a third version to London. Named “Catch-me-who-can”, he showed off its paces on a “Steam Circuit” near Euston Road (illustrated below), and gave novelty rides for a small charge.

xxxxxSoon after this, mainly because the cast-iron rails were proving too weak for the weight of his engines, Trevithick discontinued his experiments, and opened a business manufacturing metal tanks. It proved a disaster, and he was made bankrupt in 1811. Impetuous and somewhat foolhardy by nature, he now decided to seek his fortune abroad. In 1815 a number of his engines were ordered for use in the silver mines of Peru, and he decided to follow them. It was another disaster. He spent some ten years improving pumping engines in Latin America, but he did not make a fortune. In 1827 he returned to England almost penniless, and with no prospect of employment. He found too that, while he was away, others had made good use of his inventions, and steam transport had become well established. He died in poverty, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

xxxxxIt was a sad ending for a man of such talent and achievement. Apart from his pioneer experiments with road and rail locomotives, in 1805 Trevithick adapted his high-pressure engine to drive the paddle wheels of a barge, and work an iron-rolling mill. The following year he introduced the first steam dredger, and in 1812 he devised a steam-driven threshing machine. Then a year later he invented a powered drill for use in the mining industry. His series of inventions and, in particular, his revolutionary engine, put the wheels of steam power in motion. As we shall see, in 1825 (G4) the Englishman George Stephenson, was to open the first public railway in the world powered by a steam locomotive, and by 1830 steam coaches were in daily use on English roads.

xxxxxIncidentally, two Englishmen who made early use of the railway locomotive were John Blenkinsop (1783-1831) and William Hedley (1779-1843). As from 1813 Blenkinsop, a mine inspector in Yorkshire, used his engines to haul coal along cast-iron rails from Middleton to Leeds, using a tooth-rack rail system (in which toothed wheels slotted into the rails). In the same year, Hedley, also a coal-mine official, began to use his locomotive, “Puffing Billy”, to pull coal trucks from a mine at Wylam, Northumberland, to Lemington-on-Tyne, a distance of some five miles. ……

xxxxx…… Trevithick married Jane Harvey, a member of a well known engineering family, in 1797, and they had six children. One of them, Francis, became superintendent of the London and North Western Railway, and wrote a biography of his father.

xxxxxInx1805, soon after Trevithick’s first railroad locomotive, an American wheelwright in Delaware, Oliver Evans (1755-1819), also invented a “horseless” carriage for both road and rail. He likewise used high pressure steam to produce a more efficient engine and, in addition to transport needs, he used this power unit for a variety of functions, including the crushing of limestone for agricultural purposes, the driving of sawmills, the sowing of grain, and the dredging of waterways - notably the docks in Philadelphia. He later developed steam engines to assist in the manufacture of paper, tobacco and cotton.

xxxxxAndxanother inventor at this time was Goldsworthy Gurney (1793-1875). A Cornishman, like Trevithick, he trained as a doctor, but began his career as an inventor in the 1820s. Having met Trevithick as a schoolboy and been fascinated by his early experiments with steam engines, his first major invention was a horseless steam carriage which carried passengers by road. In 1829 this travelled from London to Bath at an average speed of 15 miles per hour (24 kph) using a “blast pipe” copied later by the English engineer George Stephenson. The run proved so successful that a passenger service was opened from Cheltenham to Gloucester. Unfortunately, this aroused opposition from the owners of horse-drawn carriages and he was taxed out of business.

xxxxxAmong his many other inventions were an “oxy-hydrogen” blowpipe (used in the production of “limelight”), and the “Gurney Stove”. In the late 1850s he installed a heating and ventilation system in the House of Commons (coming close at one stage to blowing the building up!) and this work earned him a knighthood in 1863.


Thomas Rowlandson

and George Cruikshank

xxxxxThe picture above of Trevithick’s rail track at Euston Road, London, was the work of the English painter Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827). He was an accomplished water-colour artist, but he was also a highly talented illustrator. Today he is remembered as one of the greatest caricaturists of the century, rivalling Hogarth, and exceeding in artistic talent both George Cruikshank and his friend James Gillray. Taking as his target the vanities and shortcomings of society at this time, from the lowest to the highest walks of life, he produced a wide variety of witty, sometimes bawdy and erotic cartoons on almost every aspect of daily activity.

xxxxxHe was born in London and studied at the Royal Academy of Art - where, we are told, his nude studies were much admired - and then went to Paris before returning to his home town in 1777. He travelled around England and on the continent for a while, making a vast number of sketchbook drawings, and then set up business as a portrait artist in London. At first he managed to live well, having inherited quite a large legacy from an aunt, but he soon frittered away his money - addicted as he was to gambling - and was forced to try his hand as a caricaturist to supplement his income. In a short while such drawings became his main source of income and, indeed, his first love.

xxxxxHis caricatures, doubtless echoing his own dissipated life style, were often coarse and ugly in appearance, and included larger-than-life images of a string of familiar social characters, such as the drunk, the actress, the old maid, the busty barmaid, the “refined” aristocrat, and the Grub Street hack. In fact he reserved his most spiteful venom for the medical profession, depicting them as quacks, body snatchers and money grabbers - as many of them were in those days. For the most part these “types” aroused little if any sympathy, but there was room for some pathos in his work. As for the subject matter, this was generally at the whim of his publisher, and was often centred around politics, but his satirical art was just as barbed against human weakness in matters such as the world of the theatre, religion, the fads of fashion and the gin tavern. And to meet the demands of all his fans, he produced high quality sets of coloured etchings for the moneyed classes, and hastily drawn and produced single prints for the lower end of the market.

xxxxxAsxan illustrator he provided brilliant wash-coloured pen-and-ink sketches for works by Oliver Goldsmith, Tobias Smollett and Laurence Sterne, but perhaps some of his best satirical illustrations were those produced for Augustus Pugin's Micorocosm of London in 1808, and for the Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, the first of a series of verse satires written in doggerel by the English poet William Combe (1741-1823) in 1812. Also very popular were his Vauxhall Gardens and A Coffee House in the 1780s, his plates for The Miseries of Life, produced in 1808 (one illustrated here), his two-volume work The English Dance of Death, completed in 1816, and The Dance of Life in 1817.


xxxxxThe London-born George Cruikshank (1792-1878), just like Rowlandson, was both a caricaturist and illustrator. As early as 1811 he came to prominence with a series of political cartoons he produced for The Scourge, a Monthly Expositor of Imposture and Folly. For the next ten years he successfully held up to ridicule all classes and institutions in English life, including the Tory and Whig parties. From then on, however, as we shall see, he concentrated on illustrating books, including Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, published in 1837. It is estimated that he illustrated more than 850 books, and was among the first artists to provide amusing pictures in books written for children. Later in his career he joined the campaign against alcohol, and produced a series of eight plates under the title The Bottle in 1847 (three shown below), each with a sequel the next year called The Drunkard’s Children.

xxxxxThe English painter Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827) produced a picture of the rail-track that Trevithick set up in London in 1808 to give rides on his Catch-me-who-can locomotive. He was an accomplished water-colour artist, but he is remembered today as one of the greatest caricaturists of the century, rivalling Hogarth and exceeding in artistic talent both Cruikshank and his friend Gillray. He produced a wide variety of cartoons ridiculing the vanities and shortcomings of current society, at all levels and in every aspect of daily life. His larger-than-life social types included the drunk, the old maid, the busty barmaid, the “refined” aristocrat, and the Grub Street hack. He also illustrated books. These included works by Oliver Goldsmith, Tobias Smollett and Laurence Sterne, and publications such as Microcosm of London, the Tours of Dr. Syntax, Vauxhall Gardens, and the English Dance of Death.