Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: George Stephenson

A small collection of houses in a mining district, called Wylam, about nine miles west of Newcastle-on-Tyne, we find to be the birth-place of George Stephenson, born June 9th, 1781.

His father was a very humble workman, who filled the position of fireman of the pumping-engine in use at the colliery, at three dollars a week. With a wife and six children to support, there was not much left after satisfying the cravings of hunger. The children, soon as opportunity afforded, were set at work to help support the family. We find young George beginning life pulling turnips at two pence a day. At eight years old he tended Widow Ainslie’s cows at five cents a day. Later, he received fifty cents a week when caring for horses.

Of course, it is the rule to find something in the boy indicative of the man, and in Stephenson’s case, legend or history furnishes the material. It seems that while acting as herder, in company with other boys, it was his favorite amusement to model engines out of clay. After a time he received a dollar a week as assistant to his father, and at the age of sixteen he was appointed to work as attendant upon the pumping-engine, at men’s wages,—three dollars per week. He was delighted, and it is doubtful if he was ever happier over subsequent triumphs as a locomotive builder, than when he was elevated to this position. He was employed at various collieries, as fireman, and afterwards as plugman, and gradually acquired so complete a knowledge of the engine as to be able to take it apart and make ordinary repairs. His ingenuity in repairing an obstinate defect in a steam engine gained him the charge of the engine.

After this his fondness for his work increased until, with study, he had thoroughly mastered all its details. At the age of eighteen he could not even read, and he began to long for some education, so that he might fit himself for a higher place in his business. He accordingly commenced his studies by taking lessons in reading, of a neighboring school-master, three nights in a week, at a small tuition. At the end of a year he could read and spell some, and could write his own name. He now had a great thirst for mathematics, which he studied faithfully the second year; at the close of which, by his attentiveness, he could cipher with tolerable facility.

During odd moments he gave some attention to mending shoes, by which he was able to earn a few extra pence. Among some shoes that were sent him to repair was a pair belonging to a young lady, whom he afterward married. In 1805 he removed to Killingworth colliery, and about this time he was desirous of emigrating to the United States, but was unable to raise money for his outfit and passage. He continued to work at his home evenings and leisure hours, cutting out clothes for the miners, mending clocks and shoes, and all this time studying mechanics and engineering with a view to perpetual motion, which a great many others of his time were studying.

His first opportunity to show his superiority was when an expensive pump had been put in the colliery, and utterly failed to do the work required of it. Various experts gave it their best efforts, but it still refused to do what was required of it. Stephenson was heard to say, by some of the workmen, that he could repair it. After all others had failed, the overseer, in despair, with but little expectation that anything could be accomplished by a raw colliery hand, employed him to attempt a remedy. He took the engine to pieces and at the end of a few days repaired it ready for work, and in two days it cleared the pit of water.

For this, and other improvements made upon old machinery, he was appointed chief engineer in 1813, at Killingworth, at a salary of £100 per year. Besides erecting a winding engine for drawing up coal, and a pumping-engine, he projected and laid down a self-acting incline along the declivity of the Willington ballast quay, so arranged that full wagons descending to the vessels drew up the empty ones. But the construction of an efficient and economical locomotive steam engine mainly occupied his mind. He was among those who saw the Blenkinsop engine first put on the track, and watched its mechanism for some time, when he concluded he could make a better machine. He found a friend in his employer, Lord Ravensworth, who furnished the money, and in the work-shops at West Moor, Killingworth, with the aid of the colliery blacksmith, he constructed a locomotive which was completed in July, 1814. The affair, though clumsy, worked successfully on the Killingworth railway, drawing eight loaded carriages, of thirty tons each, at the rate of four miles an hour. It was the first locomotive made with smooth wheels, for he rejected the contrivance which Trevithick, Blenkinsop and others had thought necessary to secure sufficient adhesion between the wheels and the rails.

While engaged on plans for an improved engine his attention was attracted to the increase in the draught of the furnace obtained by turning the waste steam up the chimney, at first practiced solely in the desire to lessen the noise caused by the escape of the steam. Hence originated the steam-blast, the most important improvement in the locomotive up to that time. The steam-blast, the joint action of the wheels by connecting them with horizontal bars on the outside, and a simplifying connection between the cylinder and the wheels, were embodied in the second engine, completed in 1815. For some years Stephenson had been experimenting with the fire-damp in the mines, and in the above year completed a miner’s safety lamp, which he finally perfected under the name of the “Gregory Lamp,” which is still in use in the Killingworth collieries. The invention of a safety lamp by Sir Humphry Davy was nearly simultaneous, and to him the mining proprietors presented a service of plate worth £2,000, at the same time awarding £100 to Stephenson. This led to a protracted discussion as to the priority of the invention, and in 1817 Stephenson’s friends presented him with a purse of $5,000 and a silver tankard.

Having now brought the locomotive to a considerable degree of perfection, Stephenson next turned his attention to the improvement of railways, his opinion being that both were parts of one mechanism, and that the employment of steam carriages on common roads was impracticable. For the purpose of making railways solid and level, and preventing jerks at the junction of the rails, he took out a patent for an improved rail and chair, and recommended the employment of heavier rails, and the substitution of wrought for cast-iron. In connection with these improvements he added considerably to the lightness and strength of the locomotive, simplified the construction of the working parts, and substituted steel springs for the small cylinder, on which the boiler had at first rested.

His next important undertaking was the construction of a railway eight miles in length, for the owners of the Helton Colliery, which was successfully opened November 18th, 1822. The level parts were traversed by five of Stephenson’s locomotives, while stationary engines were employed to overcome the heavy grades.

In 1820 an act of Parliament was obtained for a railway between Stockton and Darlington, which was opened September 27th, 1825. Stephenson, who made the preliminary surveys and specifications, was appointed engineer. The line was intended to be worked by stationary engines for the steep gradients, with horse-power on the level portions; but at Stephenson’s urgent request, the act was amended so as to permit the use of locomotives on all parts of the road. In the meantime he had opened, in connection with Edward Pease, an establishment for the manufacture of locomotives, at Newcastle-on-Tyne.

In 1825 he was appointed principal engineer of the Liverpool & Manchester railroad, which employed him during the next four years. Canals connected the two towns, Liverpool and Manchester, but it was believed that the carrying trade would support this new railway if it could be made to work. The people were told by the newspapers that locomotives would prevent cows from grazing and hens from laying. The poisoned air from the locomotives would kill birds as they passed over them, and render the preservation of pheasants and foxes no longer possible. Householders adjoining the line were told that their houses would be burned up by fire thrown from the engine chimneys, while the air around would be polluted by the clouds of smoke. There would be no longer any use for horses, and if the railways extended the species would become extinct, and therefore oats and hay would become unsalable. Traveling by road would be rendered exceedingly dangerous, and country inns would be ruined. Boilers would burst and blow the passengers to pieces.

Of course, the inculcation of such theories rendered it extremely difficult for Stephenson and his party to survey for the proposed line. The land-owners along the line made all sorts of trouble for them. Their instruments were smashed and they were mobbed, yet, on they went,—at meal times they worked, before the residents awoke in the morning, and nights, in some instances were employed. At last the survey was accomplished, the plans drawn, and the estimates furnished the company, were approved.

In Parliament even more opposition was experienced. Public sentiment can be inferred from an article which appeared in the Quarterly Review for March, 1825. Among other things it said: “What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous than the prospect held out of locomotives travelling twice as fast as horses. We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s richochet rockets as to trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine, going at such a rate. We trust that Parliament will, in all the railways it may grant, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which we entirely agree with Mr. Sylvester is as great as can be ventured on.”

But despite all such seemingly insurmountabilities, Stephenson succeeded in getting the railway bill passed. But the troubles of George Stephenson were not at an end. The company, not fully satisfied with his opinion alone, conferred with two of the leading engineers of England, who reported averse to the locomotive, recommending stationary engines at a distance of one and a-half miles apart. But at last Stephenson prevailed upon the company to offer a prize of about $2,500 for the best locomotive produced at a trial to take place on the 6th of October, 1829. At last the eventful day came, and with it thousands of spectators. Four engines appeared to compete for the prizes. “The Novelty,” the “Rocket,” the “Perseverance” and the “Sanspareil.” The “Perseverance” could only make six miles an hour, and as the rules called for at least ten, it was ruled out. The “Sanspareil” made an average of fourteen miles an hour, but as it burst a water-pipe, it lost its chance. The “Novelty” did splendidly, but unluckily also burst a pipe, and was crowded out, leaving the field to the “Rocket,” which carried off the honors. The average speed made by this engine, which belonged to Stephenson, was fifteen miles, and even attained twenty-nine miles an hour.

The distinguishing features of the Rocket, the first high-speed locomotive of the standard modern type, were the multitubular boiler, which was not Stephenson’s invention, but was first applied by him to locomotives; the blast pipe; and the direct connection of the steam cylinders to one axle, and one pair of wheels. At the opening of the road, September 15th, 1830, eight locomotives, constructed at the Stephenson works, were employed, and Mr. Huskinson, having been accidentally struck down and fatally injured by the Rocket, was conveyed in the Northumbrian, driven by George Stephenson, from Parkside to Eccles, fifteen miles, at the unprecedented rate of thirty-six miles an hour.

Stephenson was almost incessantly employed for the next fifteen years on new roads, and was called three times to Belgium, and once to Spain as a consulting engineer. With his increasing wealth he also engaged extensively and profitably in coal mining and lime works, particularly in the neighborhood of Tapton Park, an elegant seat in Derbyshire, where he passed his latter years. He declined the honor of Knighthood.

To Watt is due the honor of giving the world a practical stationary engine; George Stephenson picked that engine up bodily and placed it on wheels, and against the most direful predictions of the foremost engineers of his age, proved the practicability of harnessing steam to coaches for rapid transportation.

On August 12th, 1848, Stephenson died, leaving an immense fortune, which was the honest reward he deserved.