Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Trevithick, Richard
TREVITHICK, RICHARD (1771–1833), ‘the father of the locomotive engine,’ the only son of Richard Trevithick, by his wife Anne Teague (d. 1810) of Redruth, was born at Illogan in the west of Cornwall on 13 April 1771. The elder Richard Trevithick, who was born in 1735, became manager of Dolcoath mine, where he constructed a deep adit in 1765, and where he erected a Newcomen engine ten years later. He continued manager of the four important mines, Dolcoath, Wheal Chance, Wheal Treasury, and Eastern Stray Parks, until his death at Penponds, near Camborne, on 1 Aug. 1797. John Wesley often visited him during his visits to Cornwall; and for the last twenty years of his life Trevithick was a methodist class leader. Between 1782 and 1785, as manager of Dolcoath, he came into contact with the eccentric adventurer Rudolph Eric Raspe [q. v.]
Young Trevithick was brought up amid the clash of rival opinions as to the respective merits of the old school of Cornish engineers [see Hornblower, Jonathan] and innovators such as Smeaton and Watt. The arrival of the Soho engineers in Cornwall in 1777 had proved the source of much discord, and the ingenuity of Cornishmen was exercised during the next twenty years in attempts to discover the means of evading Boulton and Watt's patents. From 1780 to 1799 the ablest of Watt's assistants, William Murdock [q. v.], was residing at Redruth, within a few miles of Trevithick's home, and there is little doubt that from him and from pupils of the Hornblowers, such as William Bull, the youthful Trevithick derived an insight into the first principles of the steam engine. When not playing truant, Trevithick was educated at Camborne school, but he was not a favourite with the master, whom he once put in a dilemma by offering to do six sums to the pedagogue's one. Many stories are current in Cornwall of his inventive genius and his quickness at figures when a boy, and of his herculean strength as a young man. He was one of the most powerful west-country wrestlers of his day, and at South Kensington is still to be seen a smith's tool, called a mandril, weighing ten hundredweight, which he was in the habit of lifting when a stripling of eighteen. As early as 1795 Trevithick was receiving pay for the saving of fuel by improvements in an engine at Wheal Treasury mine. At the time of his father's death, in 1797, he was engineer at Ding Dong mine, near Penzance, trying to effect improvements in the engine model invented by William Bull, and he set up one of Bull's engines with his improvements at the Herland mine in rivalry with one of Watt's best engines. Shortly afterwards he effected an improvement in the plunger pump, an indispensable adjunct to mines the depth of which was continually on the increase; and this was three years later developed by him into a double-acting water-pressure engine, being a perfected form of the machine first projected more than a century previously by Sir Samuel Morland [q. v.] One of these engines, erected in 1804 at Alport mines, near Bakewell, Derbyshire, was working down to 1852.
With the introduction of his double-acting engine of 1782, Watt may be said to have perfected the vacuum engine, which a long line of inventors had been striving to produce. Despite, however, the immense superiority of Watt's low-pressure engine over that of Newcomen, the steam engine was as yet only in its infancy. On the expiration of Watt's patent in 1800 the steam engine entered upon a new career. The era of high-pressure steam and of steam locomotion commences from this date, and in connection with both these applications the name of Richard Trevithick occupies the foremost place. In 1800 Trevithick built a highly ingenious double-acting high-pressure engine, with a crank, for Cook's Kitchen mine, and this economical type of engine, known as a ‘puffer’ to distinguish it from the noiseless condensing engine, was soon in demand in Cornwall and South Wales for raising the ore and refuse from the mines.
As early as 1796 Trevithick had made models of steam locomotives, which were exhibited to friends at Camborne, and made to run on the table. The boiler and engine were in one piece; hot water was put into the boiler and a redhot iron was inserted into a tube beneath, thus causing steam to be raised and the engine set in motion. A model by Trevithick of a similar order, probably made in 1798, is now in the South Kensington Museum. The working of the crank in one of the mining or ‘whim’ engines of the Cook's Kitchen type suggested to Trevithick an improvement upon his toy model, and during 1800 and 1801 he was, at intervals, busy in modelling and designing a genuine steam carriage. Such a vehicle was completed by him on Christmas Eve, 1801, when it conveyed for a short experimental trip the first load of passengers ever moved by the force of steam. It was known locally as the ‘puffing devil’ or ‘Captain Dick's puffer,’ but apart from the difficulty experienced in keeping up the steam for any reasonable length of time, the roads about Redruth were execrably bad, and the engine met with several mishaps. Nevertheless, in January 1802, the inventor went up to London with his cousin Andrew Vivian, was interviewed by Count Rumford and Davy as to the possible utility of the new machine, and with some difficulty obtained a patent (dated 24 March 1802), the specification having been drawn up with the aid of Peter Nicholson [q. v.]
The introduction of the high-pressure principle as indicated in this patent gave increased power to steam, and Stuart would date the era of the locomotive from this discovery of Trevithick. The principle of moving a piston by the elasticity of the steam against the pressure only of the atmosphere had been described, it is true, by Leupold, and mentioned by Watt in one of his patents; but there is equally no doubt that Trevithick, by his rejection of Watt's fears as to the use of steam at high temperature, no less than by his ingenuity in the selection and arrangement of forms, gave the high-pressure engine for the first time a practical application. His only competitor in the construction of a practical high-pressure engine was another great mechanical genius, Oliver Evans of Philadelphia, who in 1804 built a steam wagon, the pioneer of the extended use of steam in America (cf. Stuart, Anecdotes of Steam Engines, ii. 461).
About 1759 John Robison [q. v.], when at Glasgow, had suggested to James Watt the use of steam for the moving of a wheel carriage, but the idea had been dropped. In 1770 Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, a native of Lorraine, constructed upon three wheels a ‘fardier mû par l'effet de la vapeur d'eau produite par le feu,’ a species of locomotive, which ran a mile in a quarter of an hour; but its tractive force was practically nil, and it was promptly voted a public nuisance (it is now to be seen in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers at Paris). A somewhat similar fate overtook a low-pressure locomotive built by Watt's ingenious assistant, William Murdock, in 1786. Murdock would have liked to pursue the experiment further, but it was strongly discountenanced by Watt as chimerical.
From where it was thus left Trevithick carried the locomotive a greater distance than any single man. In the early months of 1803 a second steam carriage of his design, built at Camborne, was exhibited in London, and made several successful trips in the suburbs. It had a cylinder 5½ inches in diameter, with a stroke of 2½ feet, and with thirty pounds of steam it worked fifty strokes a minute. The trials were brought to an end by the frame getting a twist, whereupon the engine was detached from the coach and applied to driving a mill for rolling hoop-iron. Trevithick's partners, Vivian and West, were disappointed by the lack of practical success, and experiments in steam road-carriages were postponed for many years.
Trevithick himself seems to have been in no wise depressed, for during the latter months of 1803, while employed in a general capacity as engineer at Pen-y-darran ironworks, near Merthyr Tydvil, he was engaged upon the first steam locomotive ever tried upon a railway (cf. Official Report of Stephenson Centenary, 1881). This pioneer engine was tried at Pen-y-darran during February 1804. On 22 Feb. it carried ten tons of iron, seventy men, and five wagons a distance of 9½ miles at a rate of nearly five miles an hour exclusive of stoppages (to remove obstacles from the tramway). On 2 March 1804 Trevithick wrote to his friend Davies Gilbert [q. v.]: ‘We have tried the carriage with twenty-five tons of iron, and found we were more than a match for that weight. … The steam is delivered into the chimney above the damper … it makes the draught much stronger by going up the chimney.’ Shortly after this the engine went off the road, whereupon, like its predecessor, it was converted into a stationary engine. Imperfect, however, as ‘the first railroad locomotive engine was, with its single cylinder and flywheel, it is obvious that its failure was attributable to the weakness and roughness of the tram-road, rather than to defects in the engine itself’ (Galloway; Thurston). This engine, cumbrous as it looks (it is figured in all books on the locomotive, and a model is at South Kensington), displayed a marked advance upon all previous types, and upon the strength of its performance it has been claimed that Trevithick was ‘the real inventor of the locomotive. He was the first to prove the sufficiency of the adhesion of the wheels to the rails for all purposes of traction on lines of ordinary gradient, the first to make the return flue boiler, the first to use the steam jet in the chimney, and the first to couple all the wheels of the engine’ (Engineering, 27 March 1868; and this view is amply endorsed by later writers on the locomotive, such as Hyde Clarke, Fletcher, and Stretton; cf. Rees, Cyclop. 1819). It is noteworthy that a ‘travelling engine’ of the Pen-y-darran type was built from Trevithick's designs in 1805 by his assistant, John Steele, for the wagon-way at Wylam colliery (where it worked for a short period in May 1805), and there is little doubt that this locomotive supplies the link between the type invented by the Cornish school of engineers and that perfected by the Newcastle school a quarter of a century later (see Mining Journal, 2 Oct. 1858; Gateshead Observer, 28 Aug. 1858 et seq.). In 1808 Trevithick built a new and simpler form of locomotive, the ‘catch-me-who-can;’ this was designed for a circular railway or ‘steam circus,’ which was erected upon the site of what is now Euston Square, where the inventor offered rides to all comers at one shilling a head during the months of July and August. After some weeks, however, a rail broke, the engine was overturned, and the experiment, which had not proved a pecuniary success, was discontinued. This was Trevithick's last essay upon a locomotive model, the perfection of which was left to be achieved by the Stephensons.
From 1803 to 1807 Trevithick was fully occupied in improving a steam dredger used in the Thames estuary. In 1806 he entered into a twenty-one years' agreement with the board of the Trinity House to lift ballast from the bottom of the Thames at the rate of half a million tons a year and a payment of sixpence a ton; but this arrangement seems to have lapsed. About the same time the idea of substituting high-pressure steam in the then existing Boulton and Watt pumping engines, and of expanding it down to a low pressure previous to condensation, seems to have occurred to him (letter of Trevithick to Davies Gilbert, dated 18 Feb. 1806). For this purpose he proposed to substitute a cylindrical boiler of his own design for that in common use. If this idea had been followed up, an engine nearly the counterpart of those now in use would have been produced; but Trevithick was considerably in advance of his age, his suggestions were not adopted, and he lacked the money to push them (Pole, On the Cornish Engine, 1844). An engine on a somewhat similar plan was, however, erected by him at Wheal Prosper mine in the spring of 1812, and proved a success. It was the first ‘Cornish engine’ (as the type has since been denominated) ever erected. In 1809 Trevithick was consulted as to the practicability of an archway or tunnel under the Thames, and set to work upon an experimental driftway; but here, like his predecessors, he seems to have approached too near the bed of the river, and his passage was flooded and submerged after he had accomplished rather more than three quarters of the distance proposed (Law, Thames Tunnel, pp. 4–6; Civil Engineering Journal, ii. 94). His attention was immediately diverted by the vision of an ideal cylindrical boiler of wrought iron, and by a scheme for the manufacture of iron tanks for water cisterns (an idea of great practical utility which he had patented in 1808) for buoys and for marine freight generally. In 1811 at Hayle Foundry he built for Sir Christopher Hawkins a pioneer steam threshing machine (now in the South Kensington Museum), and he was confident of the successful application of steam to all processes of agriculture; but the invention seemed at the time completely stillborn. In 1814 his interest was absorbed in a scheme for the engineering, on Cornish principles, of the famous mines of Peru. Nine of his engines were shipped for Lima during 1814, three of his friends, a cousin Henry Vivian, a former partner Bull, and Thomas Trevarthen, going with them as engineers. The inauguration of the engines was marked by complete success, and in October 1816 Trevithick gave up all his prospects in England and embarked for Peru. He sailed from Penzance on 20 Oct. in the South Sea whaler Asp, Captain Kenny, to superintend the great silver mines on the Cerro de Pasco, near Lima. He arrived at Lima in February 1817, was received with extravagant honours, and remained abroad for over ten years (see Cornwall Geolog. Soc. Trans. i. 212). After he had surmounted many difficulties and made and lost several fortunes, the war of independence broke out. The patriots threw a quantity of his machinery down the shafts, the country became thoroughly unsettled, and, after some extraordinary vicissitudes, Trevithick had to leave Peru and virtually to sacrifice his property in mines and ores. In 1826–7 he was prospecting in Costa Rica, having a design of connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific by a railroad. After having been rescued from drowning at the mouth of the Magdalena river, by means of a lasso thrown by a friendly Venezuelan officer, he made his way, penniless and half starved, into Carthagena. There, in August 1827, he was, as ‘the inventor of the locomotive,’ introduced to Robert Stephenson [q. v.] ‘Is that Bobby?’ was Trevithick's exclamation; ‘I've nursed him many a time’ (presumably during a visit to Wylam in 1805). Stephenson generously advanced him 50l., with which, having travelled in company to New York, Trevithick took a passage to England, arriving at Falmouth with empty pockets on 9 Oct. 1827. A petition presented to the government on behalf of the inventor in February 1828 was disregarded. In the following year he went over to Holland to report upon some Dutch pumping-engines. He had to borrow 2l. as passage money, and it is recorded that he gave five shillings out of this sum to a poor neighbour who had the misfortune to lose a pig.
Among his later schemes were a project for an improvement in the propulsion of steamboats by means of a spiral wheel at the stern, an improved marine boiler, a new recoil gun-carriage, an apparatus for heating apartments (dated 21 Feb. 1831), and a proposal for a cast-iron column one thousand feet in height to commemorate the Reform movement. Unfortunately his opportunities of carrying his plans to maturity became more and more restricted. The year following his last patent (that for the employment of superheated steam, dated 22 Sept. 1832) he was living at Dartford, Kent, and employed upon some of his inventions in the workshop of John Hall, when he was seized by the illness of which he died on 22 April 1833. He was lodging at the time at the Bull Inn, but at his death it was found that he had not only outlived all his earnings, but was in debt to the innkeeper. He would therefore have been buried at the expense of the parish had not the workmen at Hall's factory clubbed together to give the ‘great inventor’ a decent funeral. These same men, on 26 April, followed Trevithick's remains to the grave in Dartford churchyard. No stone marks his resting-place. ‘Such was the end of one of the greatest mechanical benefactors of our country’ (Smiles; cf. Dunkin, Dartford, 1844, p. 405). In June 1888 a Trevithick memorial window was erected in the north aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey (next the Brunel window), and at the same time were endowed a Trevithick engineering scholarship at Owens College, Manchester, and a triennial medal at the Institution of Civil Engineers.
Trevithick married at St. Erth, on 7 Nov. 1797, Jane, daughter of John Harvey of Hayle foundry, settling upon his marriage at Moreton House, near Redruth. His wife, who was born at Carnhell, Gwinear, on 25 June 1772, survived until 1868, when she died at Pencliff, Hayle, on 21 March. They had six children: Richard (1798–1872); John Harvey (1806–1877); Francis (1812–1877), his father's biographer and an engineer, who in 1847 designed for the London and North-Western railway a locomotive of a new and advanced type, with an 8-feet 6-inch driving wheel (this engine, the Cornwall, achieved remarkable success as a champion of the narrow-gauge principle); Frederick Henry, who constructed the steam floating bridge between Gosport and Portsmouth in 1864, and accomplished much engineering work in Russia, Germany, Portugal, Canada, and South America; Anne; and Elizabeth (see Boase, Collect. Cornub. 1890, pp. 1091, 1092).
As an inventor, it is probably no exaggeration to say that Trevithick was ‘one of the greatest that ever lived’ (Fletcher). In the establishment of the locomotive, in the development of the powers of the Cornish engine, and in increasing the capabilities of the marine engine, ‘there can be no doubt that Trevithick's exertions have given a far wider range to the dominion of the steam engine than even the great and masterly improvement of James Watt effected in his day’ (Hyde Clarke, On the High-pressure Engine and Trevithick). Trevithick represents with startling distinctness one type of inventor, the Promethean type, which has to expiate by common misfortune its uncommon fertility of brain. Notwithstanding his courage and his ingenuity, his impatience and impetuosity and a certain lack of persistence proved disastrous to his fame and fortune. ‘Many lessons which experience had taught him had to be relearned by subsequent inventors, who bore off the laurels which he might have earned’ (Galloway, Steam Engine, p. 208).
Fierce but tender-hearted, buoyant yet easily depressed and recklessly imprudent, Trevithick was in many respects a typical Cornishman. In person he was 6 feet 2 inches in height, broad-shouldered, with a massive head and bright blue eyes. His bust was presented to the Royal Institution of Cornwall by W. J. Henwood, and his portrait by Linnell (1816) is in the South Kensington Museum. A portrait is also included in the engraved group prefixed to Walker's ‘Memoirs of Distinguished Men of Science,’ 1862.[Trevithick's achievements, somewhat obscured by the eulogists of Watt and of Stephenson, were first brought into a just prominence in the Life of Richard Trevithick, with an Account of his Inventions, London, 1872, 2 vols. 8vo, by Francis Trevithick (with numerous plates and drawings)—a partial and confused but conscientious monument of biographical research. See also Polwhele's Hist. of Cornwall, iv. 137; Gilbert's Cornwall, ii. 394; Edmonds's Lands End District, p. 254; Tregellas's Cornish Worthies, ii. 307 sq.; Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub.; Lysons's Environs, i. 355; Smiles's Lives of the Engineers, iii. 80–5; Devey's Joseph Locke, pp. 67–74; Rennie's Autobiogr. p. 230; Walker's Mem. of Dist. Men of Science, 1864, pp. 126–32; Stuart's Descriptive Hist. of Steam Engine, p. 162; Stuart's Anecdotes of Steam Engine, 1829, p. 455; Lardner's Lectures on the Steam Engine, 1828, and The Steam Engine Explained, 1851; Tredgold's Steam Engine, 1838, p. 41; Alban's High-pressure Steam Engine; Pole's Cornish Pumping Engine; Ritchie's Railways, 1846; Thurston's Hist. of Steam Engine, 1870, p. 174; Reynolds's Locomotive Engineer, 1879, pp. 37–48; Gordon's Hist. Treatise of Steam Carriages on Common Roads, 1832; Young's Steam Power on Common Roads, 1860, p. 175; Fletcher's Steam Locomotion on Roads, 1891; Stretton's Locomotive and its Development, 1895, pp. 5–6; Deghilage's Origine de la Locomotive, Paris, 1886, planche i.; Jeaffreson's Robert Stephenson, i. 24, 105; South Kensington Museum Catalogue of Machinery, 1886; Engineer, 1867, xxiii. 91, 177 (16 Feb. and 28 Sept. 1883); Journal Roy. Instit. of Cornwall, 1883, viii. 9, 1895, xiii. 17; Railway Register, vol. v.; Hedley's Who invented the Locomotive? 1858; Edinburgh New Philos. Journal, October 1859; All the Year Round, 4 Aug. 1860; Mining Almanack, 1849, p. 303; Practical Mag. 1873, i. 90; Hebert's Register of Arts, vi. 243; Railway Times, 16 June 1888; Devon County Standard, 23 June 1888; Graphic, 13 Oct. 1888.]