LOCOMOTIVE ENGINEERS: 19TH CENTURY – How the steam age began


In the second part of his series about the dawn of steam, Brian Sharpe investigates the background to how the position of chief mechanical engineer came about in the early days – leading to the evolution of locomotive design.

In 1821 a parliamentary bill was passed to allow the building of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. The 25-mile line was constructed to connect collieries near Bishop Auckland to the River Tees at Stockton, passing through Darlington.

The original plan was to use horses to draw coal carts on metal rails, but after company director Edward Pease met George Stephenson he agreed to change the plans. Stephenson surveyed the line in 1821, and, assisted by his 18-year-old son Robert, construction began the same year.

A manufacturer was needed to provide the locomotives for the line. Pease and Stephenson had jointly established a company in Newcastle upon Tyne to manufacture locomotives. It was set up as Robert Stephenson and Company, with Robert as managing director.

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The working replica of Stephenson’s Rocket running with replica Liverpool and Manchester Railway coaches on the Great Central Railway. BRIAN SHARPE

In September 1825, the works at Forth Street, Newcastle completed the first locomotive for the new railway: originally named Active, it was renamed Locomotion and was followed by Hope, Diligence and Black Diamond.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway opened on September 27, 1825. Driven by Stephenson, Locomotion hauled an 80-ton load of coal and flour nine miles in two hours. The first purpose-built passenger car, Experiment, was attached and carried dignitaries on the opening journey. It was the first time a steam locomotive-operated railway had carried passenger traffic.

The rails used for the line were wrought iron, produced by John Birkinshaw at the Bedlington Ironworks.

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Wrought iron rails could be produced in longer lengths than cast iron and were less liable to crack under the weight of heavy locomotives. Stephenson used his gauge of 4ft 8½in, which was subsequently adopted as the standard gauge for railways, not only in the United Kingdom, but throughout much of the world.

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