by John Clarkson
Richard Trevithick was born in Tregajorran in the parish of Illogan, 13 April 1771, between Camborne and Redruth, Cornwall, British Isles. Cornwall was a rich mineral mining area at the time, with plenty of tin and copper. If you watch the TV serial Poldark then you will see some reconstructions of the conditions that faced miners at the time. Richard would be one day seen the major inventor of the steam engine.
Trevithick was according to his teachers: “disobedient, slow, obstinate, spoiled view, frequently absent and very attentive”. He was good at arithmetic, though he arrived at the correct answers by unconventional methods.
Richard Trevithick is one of the people who truly changed our world. At the age of just 19 he went to work at East Stray Park Mine, quickly becoming a consultant, which in itself was unusual for one so young. The miners respected him because of his father, who was a ‘mine captain’. For a time Richard lived next door to William Murdoch, the steam carriage pioneer, who influenced his own experiments with steam powered locomotion.
Trevithick quickly rose to engineer at the Ding Dong Mine in 1797 where with Edward Bull he pioneered the use of high-pressure steam, modifying and building new steam engines to avoid royalties to James Watt who had made improvements on the Newcomen steam engines used to pump water in the mines. William Murdoch had already developed what was called ‘strong steam’ or high pressure steam which could move a piston on its own account instead of using near atmospheric pressure in the standard condensing engines. Trevithick lived next door to Murdoch in Redruth between 1797 and 1798. Although Oliver Evans in the US and Arthur Woolf in London had been making similar experiments, Trevithick was it was said by his son, Francis, the first to make high-pressure steam work in England in 1797-1799 (depending on which sources you believe). This eliminated the condenser, used a smaller cylinder and thus made the engine more compact, lighter and thus able to carry its own weight. The expansion of steam (known as expansive working) came later.
In 1801, Trevithick built a full-size locomotive in Fore Street, Camborne, Cornwall. It was called the ‘Puffing Devil’. This was far better than Nicholas Joseph Cugnot who in France in 1770 had built a steam wagon. On Christmas Eve 1801 Trevithick carried six passengers up Fore Street, continuing on up Camborne Hill, from Camborne Cross, to the nearby village of Beacon. Andrew Vivian, Trevithick’s cousin steered the locomotive which had no rails. The demonstration inspired a Cornish folk song called ‘Camborne Hill’.
Following this Trevithick continued to make other steam engines, some which were successful, one of which unfortunately exploded (e.g. 1803 stationary pumping engine). The Pen-y-Darren locomotive built in 1802 and the Catch me Who Can built in 1808 became famous. The latter allowed passengers to ride on a circular railway track just south of present day Euston Square tube station. Trevithick’s work would later involve vast engineering projects in places like South America and Costa Rica.
Trevithick would die penniless in 1833 in Dartford at the Bull Hotel, but his invention would change the world. The way that steam power developed would alter the entire world. Firstly mining engines became much more efficient; secondly, steam engines allowed the development of railways (railroads as they call them in the USA) which took over from canals, and made the transportation of American wheat to the whole of America and the opening of steam shipping routes, which led to a better developed and safer global market. It could also be argued that Trevithick’s work helped later engineers to develop the combustion engine.
Back in the days of rapid technological expansion knowledge was poorly transmitted, and generally lost when engineers died, unless they had apprentices, which many did, including Trevithick. Nowadays, many people work their entire lives, become specialists, and retire, never to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. It’s not just knowledge but direct experiences that might be useful to future generations that are lost forever. We though have the technology to preserve all knowledge on video for as long as our digital world survives. We can pass this knowledge on to future generations, and all become teachers.