2012 marks a milestone! – 200 years of commercial railway locomotives

Britain is preparing for the Olympic games in 2012, but what many won’t realise, is that the year also marks the bicentenary of the first use of steam locomotives on a commercial railway.

Although the Cornish engineer, Richard Trevithick is credited with the invention of the world’s first steam locomotive in 1802, the invention of the first practical steam locomotive goes to Matthew Murray and John Blenkinsop of Leeds, Yorkshire.

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The major problem encountered by early steam locomotive designers were that of weight and friction; locomotives needed to be sufficiently heavy so their iron wheels would grip the rails, but not so heavy as to break them. Various solutions were attempted, such as the practical solution of adding multiple pairs of wheels to distribute the weight of the locomotive over a greater distance (as used by William Hedley c.1813), to the downright weird, such as a locomotive pulling itself along with ‘legs’, but it was Murray and Blenkinsop with their rack and pinion design that solved the problem at a stroke.

Trevithick built his first locomotive for hauling coal for the Merthyr Tramway of the Pen Y Darren Colliery in South Wales as a result of a bet between the owner of the colliery, Samuel Homfray and Richard Crawshay the owner of a nearby iron-works. The prized was an enormous 1,000 guineas. Homfray engaged Trevithick, already a noted steam engineer who had built the first portable steam engine in 1802 at Coalbrookdale and in the following year built a Steam Coach.

The competition was staged on 14 February 1804 and Trevithick’s locomotive ably hauled a train of coal wagons at a top speed of 5 mph. The 1804-designed machined was a development of his previous design for Coalbrookdale. Unfortunately, due to steep gradients and the weight of the locomotive breaking the brittle cast iron rails, the locomotive was not a commercial  or practical success.  A further development of his Coalbrookdale type design was constructed in 1805 for the Wylam Colliery in Northumberland. A second locomotive of the same design appeared the following year. Trevithick’s fifth locomotive of 1808 of a completely new design – Catch as Catch Can – was designed as an amusement for London gentlefolk rather than a viable means of transportation.

It was here in 1808 that the development of the steam locomotive might have ended- as a fairground attraction – had it not been for the massive increase in the cost of horses and their fodder brought about by the Napoleonic Wars. Colliery owners were forced to find more profitable ways of transportation. In industrial Yorkshire, John Blenkinsop, the manager of Middleton Colliery, Leeds, decided to try using steam locomotives. Steam locomotives would be cheep to run as their fuel was readily available on site, and eliminated the cost in terms of man power and fodder for horses.

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Matthew Murray (1765-1826) of Fenton, Murray & Wood based in Water Lane, Leeds, was instructed to construct a locomotive. By this time, Murray’s company was challenging Boulton & Watt for the position of the leading producer of steam engines in Britain. As it was still doubted that sufficient adhesion could be obtained from using smooth wheels on smooth rails to haul a useful load these locomotives were designed with a cogwheel (pinion), which engaged with special rails cast with teeth (rack) along the edge of the rail.  By using the rack and pinion, far greater adhesion could be achieved than heretofore possible and it mean that locomotives could  be made as light as possible, to avoid the problems caused by Trevithick’s locomotives which damaged the track.

Another possible reason may have been that Blenkinsop had patented the rack and pinion system (10th April 1811) and persuaded the colliery owners that this was the best system to apply, and so make some money from the patent rights! The decision to adopt this system would not have been taken lightly due to the cost of relaying the railway with the special rails. Whatever the actual reason it was undoubtedly a success as these locomotives were recorded hauling loads of 90 tons at 4 miles per hour.

The first locomotive built appeared in public on 24th June 1812 and is thought to have been named Prince Regent. There seems to have been a formal inauguration of steam traction on 12th August 1812 when a second locomotive was introduced. It was named Salamanca after the battle fought near the Spanish University city on 22nd July 1812 in which the then Earl of Wellington defeated the French Marshal Auguste Marmont.

Two further locomotives were built to work another portion of the railway. The first was named Lord Wellington and was delivered on 4th August 1813. The fourth locomotive was delivered on 23rd November 1814 and seems to have been known as Prince Blucher. Confusion has arisen over these names and they may have been only popular appellations.

The colliery was visited by Grand Duke Nicholas, later Tsar of Russia, who took a keen interest in the locomotives. The manufacturers later sent him a model.

Some contemporary drawings of these locomotives show them with cogwheels (pinions) on both sides of the locomotive although the rack was on one side only! It is impossible to have a rack on both sides if you have to negotiate curves. Blenkinsop would have liked to have placed the rack between the rails but had to settle with having them on one side to avoid interfering with the horses, which were still in use.

The problem of having the rack on just one side is that the power is not transmitted evenly and must lead to at least the cross shafts and gears twisting under load causing noise and wear This is why modern versions of the rack and pinion system, used nowadays only on railways with very steep gradients, have the rack in the centre of the track. This could not have been adopted at the Middleton due to the continued use of horse traction.

The locomotives cost £380 each, which included a royalty of £30 to Trevithick for his patent rights. Trevithick’s influence in the design is evident in the use of cocks to distribute the steam instead of using the more efficient slide valves, which had been patented by Matthew Murray (28th June 1802).

Although these locomotives were fairly expensive to use and heavy wear took place between the driving gear wheel and rack, they were the first commercially successful steam locomotives produced. Within a year of their introduction, four of them had replaced 50 horses and 200 men! They continued to work for many years, the last exploding in 1834. By this time it had been proved that a rack and pinion system was only needed when exceptional gradients were required so the rack system was replaced with standard edge rails.

Fenton, Murray & Wood supplied locomotives of the Murray-Blenkinsop design to other colliers. The first locomotive put into use at Orrell Colliery, Wigan at the beginning of 1813 was built with an agreement from Blenkinsop, at the Haigh Foundry. The viewer of the Kenton & Coxlodge Colliery wagon-way (Newcastle), John Watson, was a friend of Blenkinsop and he agreed to purchase Lord Wellington from the Middleton Colliery. To operate this type of locomotive the Kenton & Coxlodge had part of its system converted to rack rails. The service was started on 2nd September 1813.

This locomotive was soon joined by two others, which were specially built for the colliery in Tyneside. These were larger than the earlier Middleton ones due to the longer distances and the heavier loads encountered here. The first of these later engines soon needed replacement pistons and gears. Watson claimed that they worked well but stated that another viewer interfered with the operation of these locomotives using untrained men who mistreated them. This fact combined with the heavy loads and gradients (1 in 24 in parts) meant they became unserviceable and were out of service by the time the colliery was sold in 1817.

Even more ingenious solution to the problems of weight and adhesion of early steam locomotives was that of William and Edward Chapman. Here at Heaton Colliery (Newcastle) they used the existing method of rope or chain haulage of wagons using fixed steam locomotives and reversed it. The chain was fixed and the locomotive effectively winched itself along, but this method of propulsion was far from efficient and had very high maintenance costs, being phased out of use by 1815.

The most bizarre method of increasing locomotive adhesion was the ‘Walking’ locomotive described as the ‘Mechanical Traveller’ of William Burton which used two steam-piston powered ‘legs’ to drag itself along the rails!  It was not a success. Burton also proposed using a similar system to propel canal boats. Thus, the honour of the first commercially successful steam locomotive design goes to Murray and Blenkinsop of Leeds, who pioneered not only the steam railway but also the rack and pinion method of gaining extra adhesion still used on mountain railways to day

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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