The Early Development of the Steam Locomotive in Britain


Due to the overwhelming importance of the development of the steam locomotive to the industrialization of the world economy, there is an abundance of material written on this subject. Each writer has his own perspective on the importance of the contribution of hundreds of individuals who labored in this field. I have tried to summarize this fascinating history on this page. A listing of sources that have been collected as part of this efforts with links to source material also has been created. 


There is general agreement that the demonstration that (1) a steam engine could be made light enough to move on rails and (2) that the traction between a iron wheel and an iron rail would be sufficient to draw a useful load were the essential steps to proving the concept.  That demonstration was carried out by Richard Trevithick on the Penydarren Tramroad in Wales in the year 1804.


The key to TrevithickÕs creation was the use of a high-pressure steam engine with a forced draft combustion system.  Details of TrevithickÕs contributions can be found here.


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Subsequent to TrevithickÕs successful demonstration, it is somewhat surprising that little progress was made in the application and use of the steam locomotive. This is probably attributable to the necessity of strengthening the tramroads in order to avoid cracking of the iron plates that supported the rails – a fact that was clearly demonstrated in the Trevithick trials. . It was realized that this would be an expensive proposition, therefore Trevithick and others did not focus their efforts on improvements such as equalized weight distribution and lighter boilers. Rather, Trevithick returned to his primary commercial endeavors which focused on stationary engines. The next major developments in locomotives occurred when the Stockton and Darlington Railroad opened for operations in the early 1820Õs. These activities were carried out in England – there is little in the histories about developments in Wales, which is our prime interest as we seek to learn where Hopkin Thomas gained experience in locomotive design and operation.


During this time, experimental locomotives were built in all shapes and sizes – a  Pictorial Catalogue showing many of these designs with links to brief articles on the design features has been assembled. Also of interest is a web archive giving a listing and narration of pre-1825 British Locomotives.

HedleyÕs Locomotive – one of many experimental designs of the pre-1825 era


Despite the fact that development of the steam locomotive languished during the 1804 – 1825 era, there were individuals who committed their livelihoods to the development of the art – primarily in association with the collieries where there was clear demand for the development of some system to move the tonnages of coal that were needed for industrial development. Among the most prominent of these men were the StephensonÕs – George Stephenson and his son, Robert. Much has been written about the Stephensons – a listing of source material is given here.


George Stephenson (1781-1848)                                                            The Rocket, 1829


Another who had a major influence on locomotive development  was Timothy Hackworth -- links to articles on Hackworth are given here.


Timothy Hackworth  (1786-1850)                                 The Sanspareil, 1829


The first successful commercial railway in Britain was the Stockton and Darlington in northern England. The impetus was access to the Auckland coal fields in the west. Opening a route was a decades long process, beginning with the possibility of building a canal. Eventually, in 1822, an agreement was entered into between George Stephenson and local sponsors to survey a line capable of supporting steam locomotive operations.  The following year, George Stephenson, his son Robert, and Edward Pease and Michael Longridge entered into a partnership to build locomotives for the railway. Orders were placed for the first two locomotives – the Locomotion and the Hope.

The Route of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.


The opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, Sept. 27, 1825. Painting by John Dobbin.


It was the Locomotion that drew the inaugural train across the Skerne Bridge to the delight of the assembled crowd. Details of the event are covered in detail in RoltÕs  The Railway Revolution. Upon commencement of steam operations and based upon the recommendation of George Stephenson, Timothy Hackworth was appointed as head companyÕs shops with the responsibility of keeping the engines running. Boiler explosions, breaking rails, improved wheel designs, and needed performance improvements were all addressed by Hackworth and he gained in reputation as a leading steam power engineer. During the next few years, locomotive design was continuously improved. One of the more important advances being the abandonment of vertical cylinders which restricted the use of sprung axles. The Lancashire Witch, designed by Robert Strephenson in 1828, used four coupled wheels driven by cylinders arranged at a 45 degree incline allowing both axles to be sprung. The engine also used a slide valve which allowed the steam flow to the cylinder  be cut off prior to the full extension of the piston. This meant that for the first time the expansive power of steam was gainfully employed – this was a significant step forward in improving engine efficiency – a subject that had not received much attention at the fuel-rich coal regions.


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The Lancashire Witch, 1828


It was however, a resolution passed by the board of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company on April 20, 1829  to offer a prize of £500 for what was called The Rainhill Locomotive Trials that captured the publicÕs imagination and set the stage for the general acceptance of steam as the future of public transportation. The challenge laid down was:


1. The engine must consume its off smoke.

2. The engine, if of 6 tons weight, must be able to draw after it, day by day, 20 tons weight (including the tender and water-tank) at 10 miles an hour, with a pressure of steam on the boiler not exceeding 50 pounds to the square inch.

3. The boiler must have two safety valves, neither of which must be fastened down, and one of them completely out of the control of the engine-man.

4. The engine and boiler must be supported on springs, and rest on 6 wheels, the height of the whole not exceeding 15 feet to the top of the chimney.

5. The engine, with water, must not weigh more than 6 tons; but an engine of less weight would be preferred, on its drawing a proportionate load behind it; if of only 4.5 tons, then it might be put only on 4 wheels. The company to be at liberty to test the boiler, etc., by a pressure of 150 pounds to the square inch.

6. A mercurial gauge must be affixed to the machine, showing the steam-pressure above 45 pounds to the square inch.

7. The engine must be delivered, complete and ready for trial, at the Liverpool end of the railway, not later than the 1st of October, 1829.

8. The price of the engine must not exceed £550.


All sorts of engines were proposed, but, in the end, which was October of the same year, only three engines were serious contenders:  StephensonÕs Rocket (an improvement on the Lancashire Witch design), HackworthÕs Sanspareil, and Braithwaite and EricsonÕs Novelty. On the day of the trial, both the Novelty and the Sanspareil suffered mechanical failures (see the Battle for the Locomotive for details) , so it was by default that the Rocket was declared the winner. However, each of the three demonstrated considerable speeds – up to 30 miles per hour, and it was this promise of speed, more than anything else, that made the Rainhill trials famous.


Depiction of the Rainhill Trials


All of this activity, after TrevithickÕs demonstration in 1804,  took place in England. However, in 1828, that began to change as the iron works around Merthyr Tydfil began to place orders for equipment.  First, a locomotive order was placed by the Penydarren Works with Robert Stephenson & Co.  It was delivered in July 1829 and over the next several years underwent modifications. The final version, completed in 1832, was called the Eclipse. No further deliveries to Penydarren were recorded.

The Eclipse, 1832


More significantly, about the same time, the Dowlais Works ordered a locomotive from the Neath Abbey Ironworks; the year was 1830.  This is the first reference to Neath AbbeyÕs efforts to develop steam locomotives.  Records of this activity are preserved in the letters of the Dowlais Iron Company and the collection of drawings contained in the Neath Abbey records. Neath Abbey went on to produce over 50 locomotives between 1830 and 1874. The first engine of note was the Perseverance delivered to Dowlais in June of 1832.


The Perseverance, 1832


Thus we can speculate that Hopkin Thomas received his first exposure to locomotive design at Neath Abbey, Penydarren or Dowlais.  Based on the fact that Hopkin Thomas and Catherine Richards first son, William R., was born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1829, it is unlikely that Hopkin was employed by Neath Abbey. My guess would be that he was at the Dowlais Works.  Some future researcher should sift through the extensive collection of Dowlais letters to determine if there is a reference to Hopkin.


Another slim possibility is that Hopkin spent some time in Britain, perhaps with Timothy Hackworth. On reading HackworthÕs biographies, one is struck by the similarities in interests (primarily technological, not fame and fortune). Could Hopkin have visit the Stockton and Darlington operations when Hackworth was in charge?


To summarize from the perspective of this history of Hopkin Thomas, there were many important developments in steam locomotive development up to the year 1834 when Hopkin emigrated to America. Notably, the high-pressure engine, the use of wrought iron wheels and rails to increase traction, the use of the blast pipe, developments of the slide valve, methods of connecting the pistons to the driving wheels, the use of spring axles, etc.  It was knowledge of these developments that Hopkin brought with him as he left Wales and headed for the fledgling locomotive shops in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Return to Industry in Wales – 1800


About the Hopkin Thomas Project


Rev. November 2009