Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stephenson, George
STEPHENSON, GEORGE (1781–1848), inventor and founder of railways, second son of Robert Stephenson, fireman at the Wylam colliery, was born at Wylam, eight miles from Newcastle, on 9 June 1781. His mother, Mabel, was the daughter of Richard Carr, a dyer of Ovingham, and his paternal grandfather is said to have come from Scotland as a gentleman's servant. His father was a steady, honest workman, very fond of children, and with a great love for birds, a trait of his character inherited by his famous son.
Stephenson's first employment was herding cows; then he became a driver to the horses working the colliery gin, and at the age of fourteen was an assistant fireman to his father at the Dewley colliery. At fifteen he became fireman, and at seventeen ‘plugman,’ at the colliery where his father was fireman. While in this post, during his eighteenth year, he began to learn to read and write at a night school. In 1801 he became a brakesman at Black Callerton, lodging at a farmhouse close by. Anxious to increase his earnings, as he had formed an attachment for Frances Henderson, a servant at the farm, he took to mending boots in his leisure hours, and became very expert at the work.
On 28 Nov. 1802, when twenty-one years of age, he married Frances Henderson at Newburn church, and became engineman at Willington Ballast Hill. Here, owing to the experience gained in repairing his own clock, which had been damaged by a fire, he took up the work of cleaning and repairing clocks and watches, acquiring great skill at it. William (afterwards Sir W.) Fairbairn [q. v.], who was then working as an engineer's apprentice in the neighbourhood, became his intimate friend at this time.
On 16 Oct. 1803 his only son Robert was born, and in 1804 he removed to Killingworth, where his wife died of consumption on 14 May 1806. The greater part of the next year he spent at Montrose, looking after one of Boulton & Watt's engines. After his return his prospects seemed so gloomy that he seriously considered the wisdom of emigrating. During this period his father became incapable of active work; his parents therefore became a charge on his limited resources; he was also drawn for the militia, and had to find the money to pay for a substitute. In 1808 he took, with two other men, a contract to work the engines of the Killingworth pit. While there he took his engine to pieces every Saturday in order that he might become a thorough master of its construction. In consequence of the great skill he showed in putting in order a Newcomen engine which failed to do the pumping work it was designed for, he was in 1812 appointed engine-wright to the colliery at a salary of 100l. a year.
Meanwhile he again devoted much of his leisure to improving his scientific knowledge. He also converted his home at Killingworth into a comfortable four-roomed house, putting up a sundial in front of it, with the aid of his son. Stephenson's inventive genius was first applied to a safety lamp for miners. The constant accidents in the pits at which he was working painfully forced the danger of naked lights on his attention. He made numerous experiments on the combustion of the escaping inflammable gases at Killingworth colliery, and eventually designed a safety lamp, by controlling the entry of the air to support combustion, and the escape of the products of combustion by the use of small tubes for the gases to pass through. On 21 Oct. 1815 the first lamp was actually tried, on 4 Nov. a second improved form, and on 30 Nov. a third still better were tested. On this last occasion he entered with his lamp with perfect safety into parts of the working which were full of gas.
Sir Humphry Davy [q. v.] had, unknown to Stephenson, been working on the same subject, and practically at the same time that Stephenson's long experiments bore fruit in his lamp, Davy brought out his well-known safety lamp. A fierce controversy raged for several years on the question to whom was due the credit of this solution of a problem fraught with life and death to so many thousands of miners. A national testimonial to Davy produced a testimonial to Stephenson, and he was presented with 1,000l. and an address (12 Jan. 1818). There can be little doubt that the two inventions were quite independent of each other, and that both men practically reached the same solution by different methods at the same time (cf. A Description of the Safety Lamp invented by George Stephenson, 1817).
Meanwhile Stephenson had turned his attention to the question of steam locomotion, with which his name is permanently associated. Steam locomotion on common roads had been an idea of William Murdock [q. v.], one of Watt's most trusty assistants, and he made a working model of a steam carriage in 1784. Richard Trevithick [q. v.] took up the question in 1802, constructing a carriage which ran in Cornwall, and was shown in London for a few days. In 1811 John Blenkinsop constructed a locomotive for hauling loaded coal wagons at a colliery near Leeds, which ran on rack-rails, but was very cumbersome and unwieldy. Mr. Blacket of Wylam colliery was very anxious to introduce steam-power on his horse tramways. He had two engines made, copies of Blenkinsop's locomotive, but they were failures; then he constructed a third, assisted in the design by William Hedley [q. v.], his viewer.
Stephenson saw these attempts at Wylam in progress; his interest, always keen in the matter of improving the steam-power in colliery working, was aroused, and he set himself to deal with this problem of coal haulage. He eventually, in 1813, brought the matter before the owners of his own colliery, and, receiving financial support from them, his first locomotive was built in the engine-shops at West Moor. It had smooth wheels, an improvement at which Hedley had already arrived by experiments very similar to Stephenson's, and a cylindrical barrel to the boiler thirty-four inches in diameter and eight feet long. It was tried on 25 July 1814, and successfully drew a load of thirty tons up an incline of 1 in 450 at four miles an hour. Stephenson soon recognised means of improving his engine, and in February 1815 he took out a patent for a greatly improved engine, with steam springs for the boiler to rest on. In this locomotive the steam-blast was used by him for the first time.
Trevithick had used the steam-blast in his road engines, but without any notion of its real importance. Davies Gilbert [q. v.], however, who saw it at work, recognised its great value, and wrote a letter to ‘Nicholson's Journal’ on the subject. William Nicholson (1753–1815) [q. v.] himself took out a patent for its use in 1806, but nothing came of it. Undoubtedly Stephenson was the first to use it practically with a full knowledge of its important influence on the working of the locomotive. Meanwhile he was making experiments on the traction of vehicles on smooth roads, and these experiments materially influenced his development of the crude locomotive of 1814 into the ‘Rocket’ of 1829. He found that a gradient of 1 in 200, common enough on roads, at once reduced the hauling power of a locomotive 50 per cent., since on a smooth, level road a tractive force of ten pounds would move a ton. Moreover, he found that the friction was practically independent of speed. He came to the decision, therefore, that steam carriages on ordinary roads were of no value, and that railways must be specially designed with the object of avoiding as much as possible changes of gradient. Cuttings, tunnels, and embankments were essential. In 1819 the proprietors of Hetton colliery laid down, under Stephenson's direction, a railroad eight miles in length. It was opened for traffic on 18 Nov. 1822. The traction was carried out partly by fixed engines, partly by locomotives.
On 19 April 1821 the project of connecting Stockton and Darlington by a tramroad was, after many years of discussion, approved by act of parliament. Stephenson offered his services to Edward Pease [q. v.], the chief promoter, and strongly urged the advantages of steam locomotives over horse traction. He was at length appointed engineer to the line at a salary of 300l. a year. He surveyed the whole line himself, and early in 1823 a fresh act of parliament was obtained for a new route (Ann. Reg. 1823, p. 241). On 23 May 1823 the first rail was laid. Stephenson strongly advocated the use of malleable-iron rails, instead of the cast-iron which had always been used up to that time, and the suggestion was in part adopted. But the character of the locomotives to be used on the line occupied his chief attention. He saw the necessity of getting together a trained staff of workmen if the mechanical construction of his locomotives was to be improved. He induced Pease and his cousin Thomas Richardson (1771–1853) [q. v.] to join him in establishing works at Newcastle. They were started in August 1823, and at these works the engines for the Stockton line were made. The line was opened for traffic, amid a scene of great enthusiasm, on 27 Sept. 1825. The first locomotive that passed over it weighed eight tons and attained a speed of twelve to sixteen miles an hour. It now occupies a pedestal at Darlington station.
Stephenson's next undertaking was the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The enormous and rapidly increasing trade between these two towns had completely outgrown the canal accommodation, and as early as 1821 schemes were mooted for connecting them by a railroad. In 1824 a company was organised, and Stephenson, after several visits of the chief promoters to the Stockton and Darlington line, then in construction, was employed to make the necessary surveys for the preparation of the plans. The surveyors encountered the fiercest opposition from the farmers and proprietors of the great estates through which the proposed line was to run, and were often subjected to actual personal violence; hence, proper surveys could hardly be made. A bill was introduced into parliament in 1825, and, after a most stubborn fight, was eventually rejected, the rejection being greatly facilitated by the admitted inefficiency of the plans. Stephenson was subjected to the most searching cross-examination by the counsel for the opposers, mainly as to his method of crossing the Chat Moss, and as to the speed he proposed his engines should attain. In 1826, urged by Huskisson, the promoters again introduced a bill. The new plans were drawn on surveys made by the Rennies [see Rennie, George, (1791–1866), and Rennie, Sir John, (1794–1874)]. Another long struggle ended in their victory. Stephenson was appointed engineer, and work was at once begun. The most important constructional works on the line were the crossing of Chat Moss and the execution of the great Olive Mount cutting. By distributing the load over a considerable surface of the Moss, Stephenson was enabled, as it were, to float his line over this treacherous bog, and thus overcome the chief difficulty. While the line was being constructed long and anxious consideration was given to the question of motive power; and for a time, influenced by a report given by outside engineering experts, the directors were in favour of haulage by the use of fixed engines distributed along the line. Stephenson fought strenuously for the locomotive, and eventually the directors decided to test the possibility of Stephenson's ideas by means of an open competition, the prize offered being 500l. The chief condition insisted on was that a mean speed of ten miles an hour was to be obtained with a steam pressure not exceeding fifty pounds per square inch. There were also certain restrictions as to weight of engine in comparison with the load it hauled, the price of engine, and other details. The trial was fixed for 1 Oct. 1829.
Stephenson saw that, if he was to be successful, he must find some means of increasing the heating surface of the boilers of his locomotives. On the advice of Henry Booth [q. v.], the secretary of the company, he adopted tubes passing through the cylindrical barrel and connecting the fire-box with the smoke-box. Several tubular boilers had been previously made by Trevithick, Sir Goldsworthy Gurney [q. v.], and others; and Seguin in France, in 1828, had applied the tube principle to a locomotive. Stephenson's engine for the great trial, called ‘The Rocket,’ was built at the Newcastle works under the direct supervision of Stephenson's son, and, after many failures, the problem of securing the tubes to the tube-plates was mastered. The boiler was a cylinder six feet long and forty inches in diameter, with twenty-five three-inch copper tubes, the fire-box being two feet by three feet, secured to the front and surrounded by water; the cylinders were two, and were placed obliquely to the axis; its weight was four and a quarter tons. Three other engines entered for the competition besides the Rocket—the Novelty (the only real competitor) by John Braithwaite (1797–1870) [q. v.] and Ericson, the Sanspareil by Hackworth, and the Perseverance by Burstall. The place of trial, Rainhill, near Liverpool, was a two-mile level piece of line, and each engine was to run at least seventy miles in a day, backwards and forwards on this course, at a mean speed of at least ten miles per hour. The contest, which created extraordinary interest and excitement, began on 6 Oct. 1829. On the opening day the Rocket, the only engine ready to time, ran twelve miles in fifty-three minutes, and was eventually awarded the prize, the Novelty meeting with many mishaps during the various tests.
Stephenson's triumph was complete; his former opponents became his warmest supporters, and the railway system of the world may be said to date from 6 Oct. 1829, when the Rocket, in her trials, showed that genius and mechanical ability of the highest order had swept aside all the difficulties which had hitherto hampered progress in the development of steam locomotion on land. The ‘Scotsman,’ in commenting on the trials, said: ‘The experiments at Liverpool have established principles which will give a greater impulse to civilisation than it has ever received from any single cause since the press first opened the gates of knowledge to the human species at large.’
On 1 Jan. 1830 a trial trip with the Rocket was made over most of the Liverpool and Manchester railway, and on 15 Sept. 1830 the line was officially opened in great state, a procession of eight locomotives, with their attendant carriages, passing over it. The Duke of Wellington, then prime minister, and most of the distinguished men of the day were present. The opening ceremonies were, however, marred by the fatal accident to Huskisson [see Huskisson, William].
From this time forward till 1845, when he arrived at the decision that he ought to retire completely from active work, Stephenson's life is a history of the railway progress of the country. The locomotive underwent further improvements. When Gurney's steam-jet was applied to the Rocket, that engine attained a speed of twenty-nine miles an hour. Stephenson was chief engineer to the Grand Junction line connecting Birmingham with Liverpool and Manchester, begun in 1833 and finished by Joseph Locke [q. v.], his pupil. Stephenson was also chief engineer to the following railways: Manchester to Leeds, Birmingham to Derby, Normanton to York, and Sheffield to Rotherham, and others, all begun in 1836. The Derby to Leeds railway (afterwards called the North Midland line) was commenced under his supervision in 1837. In fact there was hardly a railway scheme in which he was not consulted, or an important line constructed without his help and advice.
After the completion of the Liverpool and Manchester railway Stephenson removed his home to Alton Grange, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch. He had married again, on 29 March 1820, Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Hindmarsh, a prosperous farmer at Black Callerton (he had no children by her). He opened large coal-pits in this neighbourhood, and spent much time and energy in developing its mineral resources. During the construction of the Midland line he took a lease of Tapton House, near Chesterfield, and lived there till his death.
In 1838 Stephenson was vice-president of the mechanical science section of the British Association at its Newcastle meeting. He took a keen interest in the foundation and support of mechanics' institutes. During the great railway mania of 1844 he kept aloof from the mad schemes then brought forward, and used all his influence to check the mania. The remarkable development of railways and the locomotive in the fourteen years which elapsed since the Rainhill competition is shown by the fact that he travelled from London to Newcastle in 1844 to attend a railway banquet in the then remarkably short time of nine hours. His last great parliamentary struggle was in 1845 in the battle between the supporters of the locomotive and the upholders of the atmospheric railway system, led by Brunel, which arose in connection with the extension of the railway from Newcastle to Berwick. Though the board of trade were inclined to support Brunel in his heresy, Stephenson's party won a great parliamentary victory, and settled the matter for ever. This was the final attempt to dispute the supremacy of the locomotive. In 1847 Stephenson became president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which was founded by him that year in Birmingham. He paid several visits to Belgium in connection with railway work, and received in 1835 the honour of knighthood from Leopold I. In 1845 he also visited North Spain in connection with a proposed railway. He steadfastly refused all proffered honours in England, and also declined to enter public life as a member of parliament.
His last years were devoted to horticultural pursuits at Tapton House, in which he developed great enthusiasm, making many experiments on the values of various manures. His second wife died in 1845, and on 11 Jan. 1848 he married the daughter of a farmer of Bakewell, named Gregory. But his strength was failing, and he died of intermittent fever at Tapton House on 12 Aug. 1848, in his sixty-seventh year. He was buried at Trinity Church, Chesterfield. The foundation-stone of a fine memorial hall was laid at Chesterfield by Lord Hartington on 17 Oct. 1877, and the building was opened in July 1879. A festival in celebration of the centenary of Stephenson's birth was held at Newcastle on 9 June 1881, when a medal was struck in his honour (W. Duncan, The Stephenson Centenary).
Several statues have been erected in Stephenson's honour. A fine one by Bailey stands in the great hall of Euston Station. Another by Gibson was placed in St. George's Hall, Liverpool, in 1844, and a third by Lough is at Newcastle near the High Level Bridge. There are two oil paintings of him by John Lucas at the Institution of Civil Engineers; in one he is painted along with his son. A third portrait by Pickersgill is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Schools were built by way of memorial at Willington, where his son Robert [q. v.], who is separately noticed, was born.
With his high mental attainments Stephenson possessed great physical strength and powers of endurance. In his younger days he was fond of showing his muscular development by feats of strength, and even when very advanced in life he was a good wrestler. His courage and perfect confidence in his work and judgment were shown by his venturing with his trial safety lamps into parts of the mine purposely rendered dangerous. The services that he rendered to the well-being of mankind by his invention of steam locomotion and railways place him among the world's greatest benefactors.
[The Life of George Stephenson, by Mr. Samuel Smiles, appeared in 1857, and, in a revised shape, formed the third volume of the same writer's Lives of the Engineers. In this form it constitutes the standard authority. See also notice of life and character by J. Scott Russell, Proc. Inst. Mech. Eng. 1849; obituary notice by J. Field, Pres. Inst. Civ. Eng., Proc. Inst. Civ. Eng. viii. 49; Memoir by Hyde Clarke in Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal, 1848, pp. 297, 329, 361; Tredgold's Steam Engine; R. L. Galloway's Steam Engine and its Inventors; Summerside's Reminiscences of George Stephenson, 1878; cf. Nature, xxiv. 121–3, an article on the centenary of Stephenson's birth.]