Stephenson's Rocket

On Track to Change the World

There is evidence that the Chinese burned coal to heat homes in 3500 BC. The Greeks used coal fires to extract metals from ore. The Aztecs burned coal and used deep black but brittle anthracite coal for jewelry. In the second century the Romans, and in the eight century the Anglo-Saxons gathered coal in central England mostly from shallow pits where seams were easily exposed with a shovel. But as heating, smithing and smelting drove demand up, mine shafts had to be dug deeper and deeper into the earth. That takes men and machines and that means big business. Mining operations were expensive and dangerous. Collapses and explosions cost many lives.
On this day June 9th, 1781 George Stephenson was born, the second son of a poor, illiterate miner in Newcastle, Northumberland, England.

Too poor to go to school, by age 10 George Stephenson was working at the local mine, leading a team of horses that pulled a coal tram; a wagon full of coal that rode on tracks. By 15 George was operating one of those newfangled Watt steam engines used to lower men into the mine and lift them back out again. The company was delighted to see George become a real steam engine expert!.

See, George was a smart kid, smart enough to know he needed an education and at age 17 he enrolled himself in night school and by his early 20’s he’d become the machine master at the mine with a reputation for fixing things better than they were. Eager, innovative and newly educated, he left Newcastle to pursue opportunities elsewhere but was forced to return to care for his father who was blinded in another mine explosion. He spent the next few years building and testing a safety lamp of his own design, one that could be used in methane environments without sparking an explosion. He unveiled his new lamp just two weeks before a similar design was introduced by Sir Humphrey Davy who immediately cried foul. It just didn’t make sense that one of England’s greatest scientists would be bested by this Northumberland hick! George was accused of stealing Davy’s design and it took years for George to finally be able to convince the courts his design was original. But the experience taught him a lesson. He was determined that his young son would be well educated and would speak with the “Language of Parliament.”

Now, a little context; early coal mining was mostly local. Unless your mine is close enough to a port to ship it, there’s no way you’re going to transport the bulky, heavy commodity overland by horse and wagon. So, your melting, smelting and smithing had to be done locally too, miles from your best markets! Until a young inventor and machine master, who knows trams, tracks, math and steam does a little mashup of all the technologies and designs a viable locomotive.

Stephenson wasn’t the only guy to think of building a train. Others were offering their own brands. In one of the earliest head to head tests, Stephenson’s train – The Rocket – went head to head with an entry called “the Novelty” mostly designed by a Swedish engineer named John Ericsson, the same John Ericsson who, after losing this race to Stephenson got out of the train business and moved to America where he designed and built the union ironclad USS Monitor.

The success of the Stephenson Rocket led to contracts with mining companies and municipalities all over England and all over the world. Stephenson often did the surveying and engineering of jobs while his highly educated and well spoken son dealt with financiers and government officials who all spoke, as he did, the King’s English. George and his son realized that all the tracks for the short run mining trains would someday connect and transport passengers as well as coal so they standardized thier track width at 4’ 8 1/2 inches; the standard even today. The Stephensons were driving the transportation innovation that defined the 19th Century.

Railroads were the catalyst of the industrial revolution, lowering transportation costs by 60 to 70%. That meant goods could be manufactured (or grown) far from where they were needed. Before railroads most people never travelled 30 miles from the place they were born and no one had ever travelled faster than a horse can gallop … except between that crumbling ledge and the ground below. Railroads connected the great cities of the world and really united the United States! and Stephenson Locomotives became the dominant brand.

Over the years George Stephenson became known as “The Father of Railways” and most lists you’ll see of the 100, 50 or even ten most important Britons of all time, you’ll find George Stephenson’s name because he led a revolution that literally changed the world.