The Locomotive Age

The Locomotive Age

The Locomotive Age was one of the most productive and innovative periods of American history. For centuries, people had strived to control the mechanical power of water and heat. However, it would not be until the 18th century in Great Britain that the locomotive steam engine would start to transform the industry and human capability to work, progress, and adapt in a quickly changing society. In this brief article, we will be taking a step back in time to the Locomotive Age in order to see how the development of this remarkable machine truly changed the world.

The story begins in 1712 when a man by the name of Thomas Newcomen, along with his assistant, John Cally, revealed the first commercially viable steam engine to the world. Dubbed “the Newcomen,” this steam engine was an atmospheric engine that utilized steam to power a pump. Unfortunately, it was not as efficient as it needed to be. Regardless, a large number of these engines would go on to be used to pump water from flooded areas and coal mines across Great Britain. By the late 18th century, the “father of the steam engine,” James Watt had significantly enhanced the efficiency of stationary engines. He then patented a double-acting engine that used high-pressure steam on each side of the engine piston in order to double the output. He went on to obtain patents for ancillary devices such as steam regulators, throttle valves, and pressure gauges. Watt partnered with the manufacturer Matthew Boulton and his continued inventions and improvements were some of the most important developments of the Industrial Revolution.

Inventors continued to strive to shape the steam engine to fit different types of transportation as well. They felt that achieving motive steam power would open the doors of modern transportation and give everyone the ability to be able to travel at significantly faster speeds than horseback. By 1802, a man named Richard Trevithick received a patent for a high pressure engine. This engine led to the creation of the first steam-powered locomotive on the rail lines. On February 21, 1804, Trevithick wrote about the trial of his “High Pressure Tram-Engine,” and that he had successfully "carry'd ten tons of Iron, five wagons, and 70 Men...above 9 4 hours and 5 Mints." This event may not sound like much of a success, but it was a massive step towards future inventions that would change our relationships to both technology and transportation.

In 1814, George Stephenson and son, Robert, developed the first practical steam locomotive, called the travelling engine. It was used to haul coal at the Killingworth mine (near Newcastle in the U.K.). By 1829, the two men had also built the infamous locomotive named “Rocket.” Using a multi-tube boiler, a common practice that would prove successful in steam engines for many generations to follow, Rocket beat out the competition at the Rainhill Trials. These trials were held in order to determine whether it was better to move wagons over the rail lines via a locomotive steam engine or by a fixed steam engine that used a pulley system. Rocket won a £500 prize and held an average speed of 13 miles an hour with a load (28 miles an hour without a load). From there, George and Robert Stephenson would go on to incorporate a multitude of different components into engines that would successfully be used in future generations of steam engines.

Depiction of the first run of the locomotive Stourbridge Lion on August 8, 1829, in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Painted c. 1916. Clyde Osmer DeLand.

The first locomotive that operated in America was the “Stourbridge Lion”. Imported from England in 1828 by a New Yorker named Horatio Allen, British locomotives failed to overshadow the American rail lines due to the fact that they were simply too heavy to run on the lighter American railroad tracks. This issue led the Stourbridge to be relegated in its function as a stationary steam engine. Starting in 1812, engineers and inventors in America were neck and neck with British rail lines. A man named John Stevens had gone about petitioning Congress to show their support for a national railroad. In 1825, Stevens had built the first American steam locomotive, which was a multi-tube boiler engine that he demonstrated on a circular track in Hoboken, New Jersey. Stevens failed to receive the financial support he needed for either his locomotive or a national railroad, but he became the founder of Camden & Amboy Railroad, one of America's first railroads.

Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb, 1900.

By 1830, Americans were able to see the first locomotive that was capable of pulling a passenger car on the railroad, Peter Cooper's “Tom Thumb.” The tiny, but mighty locomotive was more than enough to prove to the directors of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad that the steam locomotive was more than a practical application and was something that was truly going to change travel in the nation. The ability to pull a regular service series of rail cars across a railroad line was a train named “Best Friend” out of Charleston, South Carolina in 1831. Best Friend was built in New York and was designed by E. L. Miller. It was in operation for approximately six months until a boiler exploded when one of the workers, annoyed by a hissing sound, pounded down on a safety valve. That same year, Matthias Baldwin founded Baldwin Locomotive Works and created a second steam engine. Another man E.L. Miller also crafted a prototype that would continue to be used by later engines as well. By the end of the 19th century, Baldwin Locomotive Works would go on to become the biggest single-plant locomotive manufacturer in the entire world and was the leader in the industry for more than a hundred years. They manufactured more than 59,000 locomotives.

The very first locomotives were designed to have fixed wheels and while the style worked on tracks that were straight, they struggled in the more mountainous regions of the country. In 1832, a civil engineer by the name of John Jervis set about finding a solution, and he developed a locomotive called “the Experiment.” This locomotive boasted a “bogie” (a swiveling four-wheeled guide truck) that followed tracks and gave locomotives the ability to be able to travel on tracks that had much tighter curves. One additional development that set apart American locomotives from European models was the pilot, or the "cow catcher.” Cow catchers were designed because railroad lines weren’t fenced and railroad companies were held responsible for damages that were incurred from collisions with animals that could derail locomotives. In 1833, a locomotive called the “John Bull” was one of the first to be fitted with a cow catcher and these devices would soon become a standard appliance for locomotives in America. Locomotives could be configured in a number of ways, categorized by the wheel arrangement of the leading truck, driving wheels, and the trailing truck.

Locomotives were crucial in the Industrial Revolution. Their development allowed people to travel to cities for work. Businesses started to boom thanks, in large part, to the railway lines. The railway played a part in virtually every facet of the Industrial Revolution, most notably in the distance people were able to travel and how fast they were able to get there.