This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

February 2004


21 February 1804:   Richard Trevithick, Cornish inventor and engineer, demonstrated the first steam-driven locomotive at Penydarren, Wales.

Observing one of the early flights by the Wright brothers, journalist Arthur Ruhl was moved to remark that he felt as if he was “present at something almost as extraordinary as the first trip of the first locomotive.” As it was, the first airplane flight by the Wright brothers came within a few weeks of the one-hundredth anniversary of the first locomotive, invented by Cornishman Richard Trevithick.

While the Scotsman James Watt is most often associated with the invention of the steam engine, the development of steam power was very much a Cornish affair. The very first, primitive steam-driven water pump, known as the “Miners’ Friend,” was invented by Cornishman Captain Savery back in 1699 to drain a deep-shaft tin mine. The first compound steam engine, in which excess steam was re-channeled to drive a second cylinder, was the work of Jonathan Hornblower of Penryn in 1781. The Cornish scientist Davies Gilbert corresponded with both Hornblower and Trevithick, and urged them to develop a more efficient, high-pressure steam engine. Cornish inventor Edward Bull, who worked alongside Trevithick, also worked at refining the English-designed Newcomen engine.

James Watt, like the Wright brothers a hundred years later, slowed technological developments by his careful guarding of his patent rights, blocking other men’s innovations on the grounds of patent infringement. But when his steam-engine patent expired in 1790, it unleashed a wave of experimentation on steam engines in Cornwall. Cornwall, with its many waterlogged tin and copper mines, was in urgent need of more efficient steam power, both for driving water pumps as well as providing power for other mining operations. Richard Trevithick wasn’t the only engineer seeking to develop better steam engines: his work was paralleled by a Scottish inventor, William Murdock, and there were likely others.

Trevithick, however, pulled ahead and secured his place in history by building a self-propelled steam engine, which he demonstrated in an historic haul up Camborne Hill on Christmas Eve, 1801.

The state of the mostly unpaved roads in Britain made his engine impractical as a road vehicle, and Trevithick left the idea alone until he arrived at Penydarren, Wales in early 1804 to install a stationery steam engine at Samuel Homfray’s ironworks. There a whole new opportunity presented itself.

The area around Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales’ Taff Valley was in the thick of an industrial revolution, with coal mines and ironworks opening up. The Glamorganshire Canal had been opened in 1794 to haul the products of Merthyr’s industry to the port of Cardiff, but with its many slow-operating canal locks and increasing numbers of ironworks, the canal had become chronically congested. To speed the flow of their pig iron to market, Homfray and a number of fellow iron masters had pooled together and built a primitive nine and a half mile long tramway to bypass the worst of the canal’s congestion. When Trevithick saw the primitive horse-drawn tramway, with its tracks formed of L-shaped iron plates, he realized that this offered a potential solution to the problem of rutted, uneven roads that defeated his earlier self-propelled steam engine.

He proposed to fit a steam engine to the tramway that would haul carts full of pig iron better than teams of horses could. Homfray readily agreed to the experiment, but rival iron master Richard Crawshay declared that iron wheels would never get an adequate grip on smooth iron tracks, and he bet Homfray 500 guineas (525 pounds sterling) that it would never work. That is serious money even today, but Homfray accepted the bet. The terms agreed upon were that Trevithick’s engine would have to haul ten tons of iron from Merthyr Tydfil down the tramway to the canal at Abercynon and return to Merthyr with the five empty carts.

On the day of the test, Crawshay, no fool with his money, rode a horse down and up the entire route to observe Trevithick’s engine in action. When the engine at last returned to Merthyr, Homfray was declared to have won the bet. Crawshay wasn’t the only doubter won over that day, for as Trevithick remarked in a letter to Davies Gilbert, “the Publick untill now call’d mee a schemeing fellow but now their tone is much alterd.”

But Trevithick’s epoch-making locomotive run proved something of a dead end for him. The weight of his engine tended to break the iron tram-rails beneath it, and it was eventually retired and the tramway reverted to horse- and mule-power. Trevithick’s subsequent efforts to build a reliable locomotive proved disappointing, and he eventually dropped the effort altogether. While Richard Trevithick returned to his work on stationary steam engines, it was left to other men, notably George Stephenson, to take the next critical steps in the birth of the railroad age.

Trevithick Day, Camborne, Cornwall is Saturday, 24 April 2004. The main Bicentennial celebration of the Penydarren locomotive will be at the Merthyr Tydfil Heritage Fesitval, Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, Wales, 1-11 July 2004.

For more information on Cornwall and Wales, see the Cornwall and Wales Nation Pages.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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