George Stephenson

Many sons spend time with their dads building cardboard forts or constructing model planes. The father and son team of George and Robert Stephenson, however, went a good deal further. They worked so well together, they ended up building the world's first steam locomotive.


George Stephenson was born in 1781 but rather than hanging around at school, he rolled up his sleeves and learned his craft on the job at a coal mine, where he serviced a steam pumping engine. After about 10 years, he had picked up enough knowledge to begin building his own steam engines and locomotives. By the time he was 40, he had become engineer on the world's first public railway - the Stockton and Darlington line. But his big moment came with the opening of the new Manchester to Liverpool railway.

Investors wanted a fast, reliable service to keep their commuters happy, so they organised a time trial to find the best locomotive design. By now, George's son Robert was an engineer in his own right and was managing his father's locomotive factory in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The pair put their heads together and came up with the Rocket.

During the trials at Rainhill, Rocket lived up to its name, reaching a rollicking 35 miles per hour, and was clear winner - not least because all its competitors broke down. George and Robert's design was revolutionary, setting the standard for modern locomotives and making the pair famous around the world.

George continued to work on the rapidly expanding railways until his death in 1848. Meanwhile, Robert branched out into more ambitious construction projects, including the formidable Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits in North Wales and the giant Arnside Viaduct in Cumbria. When he died in 1859, he was buried in Westminster Abbey: the ultimate accolade from a grateful nation.