This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

April 2003

RICHARD TREVITHICK 225th Anniversary 1778-2003

13 April 1778:   Richard Trevithick, Cornish locomotive inventor, born.
22 April 1833:   Richard Trevithick, Cornish locomotive inventor, died.

In April 2001 an enthusiastic crowd gathered in Camborne, Cornwall to cheer as a quaint replica steam engine sporting a Cornish flag slowly made its way with its seven-man crew to the top of Camborne Hill. The engine was a replica of the first self-propelled steam engine built by a local inventor named Richard Trevithick, and the occasion was the town’s annual celebration of “Trevithick Day.” A few months later, on Christmas Eve, the engine would again climb Camborne Hill to observe the exact bicentennial of its historic debut.

Born at Illogan, Cornwall on 13 April 1778, Richard Trevithick as a young man became known as “the Cornish Giant” for his six-foot, 2-inch height, and he gained further local renown for his expertise in the ancient Celtic sport of Cornish wrestling. By profession he was a mining engineer working in the flourishing hard-rock copper and tin mines of Cornwall. The steam engines used to pump water out of these ever-deepening shafts were nothing new in themselves, having been invented years before by the Scotsman James Watt, but they were enormous, immobile low-pressure devices.

While working as the chief engineer at the Ding-Dong Mine near Penzance, Trevithick set out to improve upon Watt’s steam engines. Trevithick’s innovation would be to refine Watt’s concept into a much smaller design using higher steam pressure, which he could mount on a platform and have it drive wheels to move itself down a roadway. His engine vented excess steam out through the chimney, earning it the nickname of “the Puffing Devil,” or later simply “the Puffer.”

When Trevithick first took his Puffer out for a trial run up Camborne Hill on 24 December 1801 his idea seemed to have been only to make his engines self-mobile so they could move themselves around to serve where they were needed to drive drainage pumps at mineshafts and worksites. But when seven of his friends came along and hopped onto the platform for a ride up the hill, they unwittingly became transportation pioneers, demonstrating the new engine’s potential as a mover of goods and people.

Trevithick filed his patent for the high-pressure steam engine on 24 March 1802, much to the annoyance, and lasting emnity, of James Watt. The older inventor maintained, not unreasonably, that the use of high steam pressure risked explosions and was a hazard to the public. Watt was known to remark in later years that Trevithick deserved hanging for having brought such a thing into the world.

The state of British roads in those days didn’t make the idea of a self-propelled road vehicle very practical, but when Trevithick took his Puffer to the Welsh iron foundries at Penydarren in Merthyr Tydfil a whole new possibility presented itself. In response to a wager, on 21 February 1804 he mounted his engine onto a primitive iron-plate tramway used by horse-drawn wagons and hauled ten tons of pig iron over nine miles to the canal at Abercynon. In an almost casual way Trevithick had invented the railroad.

Though Trevithick did little more to develop the idea of the locomotive per se, he went on to a distinguished career of engineering and invention. Among the many ideas he spun off may be found designs that anticipated container shipping, the screw propeller, and even that mainstay of your school cafeteria, the steam table. One of his more unusual proposals anticipated the Eiffel Tower with a design for a thousand-foot-high iron column with an elevator inside to carry passengers to a viewing platform on top.

It was intended to be a memorial to the parliamentary Reform Act of 1832, a liberal cause that Trevithick enthusiastically supported. But having been previously denied a pension by the not yet reformed Westminster Parliament, he died penniless while working in England on 22 April 1833, just nine days past his fifty-fifth birthday. His burial in Dartford Churchyard was funded only by the contributions of some local factory workers. Ironically, although a splended bronze statue of him, affectionately known as “Captain Dick,” stands today beside the road up Camborne Hill, Richard Trevithick’s grave in England remains unmarked.

The annual celebration of Trevithick Day has been held in Camborne since 1984 on the last Saturday in April. Commemorative events are also being planned for the bicentennial of the first locomotive run at Penydarren, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, in February 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, available soon from the Celtic League American Branch.

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