When you break the big laws, you do not get freedom; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws. — G. K. Chesterton

George Stephenson

Civilization: British — England
   Field of Renown:  inventor — Steam locomotive
Era:  Victorian

George Stephenson was the inventor of the first commercially successful locomotive, and is considered the "Father of Railways". He was very famous in his own time not only because of the tremendous importance of his achievements but because he was entirely self-educated and had risen to be one of the most successful businessmen in Britain from exceedingly humble circumstances. In Victorian England, he was considered an icon of the hard working "self-made" man.

Stephenson was the son of a coal miner and he joined his father in the mines when he was still in his teens to help support the family. He realized the importance of education however, and taught himself as much as he could on his own. Hard-working and intelligent, he was given more responsibilities at the mine, and became a brakeman. With this increased salary he thought that he could support a family and married. A son was born soon after his marriage but soon after, his father was blinded and his wife died. He therefore moved back into his parents home with his young son, and took on the responsibility of supporting his entire family.

Meanwhile George continued to take on more responsibility at the mine. He had spent a year working in a factory where he learned all about engines so when he returned to the mine, he was eventually promoted to engine-wright. He became an expert at repairing and adapting engines and was consulted by other manufacturers whenever a local engine malfunctioned. When George's son became old enough to go to school, his father studied with him every night and in this way, gave both himself and his son the best education possible with the resources he had available.

The mines where Stephenson worked used steam engines for a number of tasks, most notably for pumping water out of mines but also for other purposes. In additions, the mines had long stretches of rails, usually built of wood and wrought iron, on which coal cars were transported. Sometimes horses were used to pull the coal-cars along the rails, and sometimes engines were rigged with cables in order to pull them. Other people had thought of the idea of using an engine to directly drive rail carts, but no one had come close to making a practical locomotive. There was not just one problem to solve but many. Engines were large and heavy, and building a cart and rail system that could carry one was a challenge in itself. The problem of attaching the engine to the axle efficiently was also a difficult one. Stephenson knew a locomotive would be very useful, but it took many years to solve the numerous problems involved. His first prototype, called the "Blucher" was completed in 1814, and it gained attention as a novelty, but was more expensive to operate than horses.

Stephenson continued to make improvement to his locomotives in his machine shop at the Killingworth colliery for many years before they were of commercial value. In 1820 he oversaw the building of an 8 mile railway from a colliery to a nearby town, and designed an engine that ran on it. His great breakthrough was in 1821 when parliament agreed to build a 25 mile railway, and Stephenson helped design it. He then designed three locomotives to run on it, and on the day the Railway opened in 1825, it created an international sensation.

Stephenson now went into business with his son, and could not keep up with the demand for railroads. They learned more with every new railway they built, and made continual improvements to the engines, cars, and rail systems. In 1830 a six-mile railroad was opened from Liverpool to Manchester, and within ten more years there were hundreds of miles of railroad running throughout England, carrying both passengers and freight. Stephenson became one of the best known industrial heroes of Victorian England. He retired in 1847 and died the following year.

Key events during the life of George Stephenson:

George Stephenson born to an illiterate laborer in a coal mine.
Begins working a colliery with his father running a pumping engine.
  Teaches himself reading and arithmetic at night.
Marries. Works as a brakeman in a coal mine.
Began fixing the pumping engines at the coal mines. Became expert engine-wright.
Invented a safety lamp at the same time as famous scientists Humphrey Davy.
Designed first prototype of his steam engine on rails.
Built and 8 mile iron railway using a newly designed "locomotive."
Designed a locomotive to work on the 25 mile Stockton and Darlington Railway.
Opened the 60 mile Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
  Continued to build railroads until retirement.
Death of Stephenson.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
George Stephenson & Invention of the Locomotive  in  Great Inventors and Their Inventions  by  Frank P. Bachman
George Stephenson, Father of the Railway  in  Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary  by  Cambridge Press
George Stephenson  in  Builders of Our Country: Book II  by  Gertrude van Duyn Southworth
George Stephenson  in  Great Englishmen  by  M. B. Synge
Story of the Steam-Engine  in  The Struggle for Sea Power  by  M. B. Synge

Image Links

George Stephenson
 in Great Inventors and Their Inventions

Stephenson modeling an engine in clay
 in Great Inventors and Their Inventions

George Stephenson and his son Robert studying together
 in Great Inventors and Their Inventions

Stephenson at the Opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railroad
 in Great Inventors and Their Inventions

Stephenson showing the possibilities of the Locomotive
 in Great Inventors and Their Inventions

George Stephenson
 in Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary

The Conference of Engineers at the Menai Straits Preparatory
 in The Hanoverians

George Stephenson
 in Builders of Our Country: Book II

Short Biography
Humphry Davy British Scientist who pioneered the field of electro-chemistry.
Robert Stephenson Son and business partner of George Stephenson, inventor of the locomotive.