“I have been branded with folly and madness for attempting what the world calls impossibilities, and even from the great engineer, the late Mr. James Watt, who said to an eminent scientific character still living, that I deserved hanging for bringing into use the high-pressure engine. This so far has been my reward from the public; but should this be all, I shall be satisfied by the great secret pleasure and laudable pride that I feel in my own breast from having been the instrument of bringing forward and maturing new principles and new arrangements of boundless value to my country. However much I may be straitened in pecunary circumstances, the great honour of being a useful subject can never be taken from me, which to me far exceeds riches.”
Richard Trevithick in a letter to Davies Gilbert
Richard Trevithick was a British inventor and mining engineer from Cornwall, which was what first brought him to my attention, because my mother’s family is originally for Cornwall. (Yes, I really am a pixie. Let’s get the short jokes out of the way quickly, shall we?) I suspect that Richard was the inspiration for Dick Simnel in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Raising Steam’, At school, young Trevithick, the son of a miner, was considered slow in everything but arithmetic, and he wasn’t trained as an engineer … but he was the first to invent the locomotive. His father-in-law was a blacksmith, John Harney, formerly a blacksmith who went on to form the foundry, Harveys of Hayle; his company became famous worldwide for building huge stationary beam engines used for pumping water. Can you see where the fictional Dick Simnel might have crystallised from Richard Trevithick?
Trevithick was an intuitive inventor, and remained functionally illiterate all his life. As an engineer in a Cornish mine, he was keen to utilise technology that would make mining more profitable. He could see steam was the answer, “Strong Steam”, so called because it was pressurised and dangerous. In 1797, Trevithick constructed high-pressure working models of both stationary and locomotive engines – just like Dick Simnel did. The models were so successful that he felt confident to scale up and built a full-scale, high-pressure engine for hoisting ore. It was a success, so he built more. They were known as “puffer whims” because they vented their steam into the atmosphere.
This invention would have been enough to make his name as an inventor, but in 1804 he built and demonstrated the first self-propelled railway steam locomotive. And Steam-powered enthusiasts are still rejoicing.
Replica of the railway locomotive, the ‘Puffing Devil’, designed by Richard Trevithick.
Trevithick boult a second, similar locomotive in 1805, and in 1808, Trevithick demonstrated a third, the Catch-me-who-can, his ‘steam circus’ on a circular track laid in London, where he charged a shilling a ride. He then had to abandon these projects, because the cast-iron rails proved too brittle for the weight of his engines.
In 1805 Trevithick adapted his high-pressure engine to driving an iron-rolling mill and propelling a barge with the aid of paddle wheels. His engine also powered the world’s first steam dredgers (1806) and drove a threshing machine on a farm (1812). Such engines could not have succeeded without the improvements Trevithick made in the design and construction of boilers. For his small engines, he built a boiler and engine as a single unit, but he also designed a large wrought-iron boiler with a single internal flue, which became known throughout the world as the Cornish type. It was used in conjunction with the equally famous Cornish pumping engine, which Trevithick perfected with the aid of local engineers.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica
Trevithick went on to invent many of the safety features that made his boilers a workable proposition. We went to make improvement and more inventions. However, he never received the credit for his endeavours that he deserved. Taking encouragement from earlier inventors who had achieved some successes with similar endeavours, Trevithick petitioned Parliament for a grant but he was unsuccessful in acquiring one. But after his death, his legacy began to given some notice. The Trevithick Society is a registered charity that was started in 1935, to preserve his inventions as they started to be replace by more modern machinery.
So I can’t think of an individual who deserves the love and respect of Steampunk writers and enthusiasts. If he was good enough to inspire Terry Pratchett, he is good enough for me!
This post is dedicated to one of the great Facebook Friends: The Historical Detective Agency Ltd., as Dan and the team inspired this blog post.