A Fast Track History Of Steam Locomotives

All aboard for a celebration of the golden age of steam travel, and the incredible pioneers who made it happen.

Portrait of English scientist Richard Trevithick

Portrait of English scientist Richard Trevithick

Remember when travelling by train was a romantic, magical, thrilling experience? Probably not, but major steam services ran until as "recently" as the late 1960s. Where did it all begin, though?

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The Terrific Trevithick

Who was the father of steam-powered rail travel as we know it? Names like George Stephenson and his son Robert Stephenson may come to mind, but actually their work came along later. The first major pioneer was Richard Trevithick, a "disobedient, slow, obstinate" child from Cornwall who grew up to invent high-pressure steam technology, which allowed steam engines to be small enough for use in transport. This paved the way for his "Puffing Devil", a road vehicle powered by steam which he demonstrated in 1801. Sadly, it later caught fire and was destroyed, but Trevithick was just getting started.

The First Steam Railway

A few years later, in February 1804, Trevithick made history again when he ran a steam locomotive on railway tracks at an iron works in Merthyr Tydfil. Pulling several wagons, ten tons of iron and a whopping 70 men, it took just over four hours to travel just under 10 miles. Not exactly speedy, but this was the first public demonstration of a steam-powered rail journey. In 1808, the great man unleashed "Catch Me Who Can", a new locomotive which chugged around a circular demonstration track in central London. People bought tickets to ride on it, adding another world first to Trevithick's CV. Incredibly, despite his achievements, Trevithick would go on to have a bleak end, dying penniless in a hotel and being buried in an unmarked grave.

>MORE: The Five Most Iconic Steam Engines From History

Doing The Locomotion

A major turning point came in the 1820s with the formation of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, which was the world's first public railway to use steam locomotives. And who was to build those locomotives? This is where the legendary George Stephenson comes in. It was his company that created Locomotion No. 1, the first steam engine designed to carry passengers on a public railway. It ran successfully for a few years, but there was a major upset when its boiler exploded, killing the driver. A new evolution was called for.

Opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Rocket Men

And so we come to the Rainhill Trials, a competition held in 1829 which changed the future of transport across the world. This was a competition set by the London and Manchester Railway, which wanted to decide what kind of locomotive was best suited for its network. A number of engineers competed, including George and Robert Stephenson, who submitted their now-iconic Rocket. It was a major event of the time - to thousands of onlookers, it would have been like watching science-fiction technology at work. The Rocket was the clear winner, and the Stephensons went on to set the course for rail travel in Britain and across the globe.

The Golden Age Of Steam

Then came the opening of the London and Manchester Railway - the first to rely only on steam rather than horse power, and the first to have a signalling system and formal timetable. The first day, 15 September 1830, was marred by a shocking tragedy when MP William Huskisson was struck by a locomotive - Stephenson's Rocket, no less - and died from his injuries. But, painful baptism aside, this really was the beginning of a new era of mass transit: the golden age of steam which would get people travelling like never before, and power the Industrial Revolution.

The End Of An Era

Steam travel continued to a surprisingly late date. It was only in the late 60s that British Rail finally called a halt to the chug-chugging locomotives that changed the nation. On 11 August 1968, the last ever mainline steam-powered passenger service took place, running from Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester Victoria to Carlisle, and back again. Thousands of people lined up to watch the bittersweet event, and when the train finally crept to a stop just before 8pm that evening, the age of steam travel in Britain came to an end.