1902 Encyclopedia > George Stephenson

George Stephenson
English engineer
(1781-1848)




GEORGE STEPHENSON (1781-1848), perfecter of the locomotive, was the son of Robert Stephenson, fireman of a colliery engine at Wylam, near Newcastle, where he was born 9th June 1781. In boyhood he was employed as a cowherd, and occupied his leisure in erecting clay engines and similar mechanical amusements. Afterwards he drove the ginhorse at a colliery, and in his fourteenth year became assistant to his father in firing the engine at a shilling a day. He set himself diligently to qualify himself for higher duties, and in his seventeenth year was appointed engineman or plugman. As yet he was unable to read, but, stimulated by the desire to obtain fuller information regarding the wonderful inventions of Boulton and Watt, he began in his eighteenth year to attend a night school, and soon made remarkably rapid progress. In 1801 he obtained the situation of brakesman, and in 1812 was appointed engine-wright at Killingworth high pit at a salary of £100 a year. Meantime he had been employing his leisure in watch and clock cleaning, in studying mechanics, and in various experiments with a view of solving the difficulties connected with the construction of a satisfactory locomotive. Having obtained permission from Lord Ravensworth, the principal partner of the Killingworth colliery to incur the outlay for constructing a " travelling engine " for the tramroads between the colliery and the shipping port nine miles distant, he made a successful trial with the engine, which he named "My Lord," 25th July 1814. Setting himself diligently to improve his invention, he thoroughly satisfied himself that for the proper success of the locomotive a railway as nearly as possible level was an essential condition. In 1822 he succeeded in impressing with the importance of his invention the projectors of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, who had contemplated using horses for their waggons, and was appointed engineer of the railway, with liberty to carry out his own plans, the result being the opening, 27th September 1825, of the first railway over which passengers and goods were carried by a locomotive. The success of the Stockton and Darlington Railway led to the employment of Stephenson in the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which, notwithstanding prognostications of failure by the most eminent engineers of the day, he carried successfully through Chat Moss. He also succeeded in persuading the directors to give the locomotive a trial, and, as his improved invention, the "Rocket," during her trial trip made 29 miles an hour, his suggestion met with complete approval; with the opening of the line, 15th September 1830, the modern era of railways may be said to have been definitely inaugurated. While his experiments in connexion with locomotives were in progress, the construction of a safety lamp for use in mines occupied much of his attention. There can be no doubt regarding the justice of his claims to be considered the first inventor of the tube safety lamp, notwithstanding that the name of Sir Humphry Davy has been chiefly associated with the discovery. In recognition of the "valuable service he had thus rendered to mankind," subscriptions were in 1815 collected in behalf of Stephenson which amounted to £61000, a sum which he found of great convenience in connexion with his locomotive experiments. Stephenson was closely connected with the more important of the railway projects which the success of the Liverpool and Manchester line called into existence, but he strongly disapproved of the railway mania which ensued, and predicted that only ruin could result f^om the prevalent disposition towards railway speculation. He was frequently consulted in regard to the construction of foreign railways, and in this connexion visited Belgium and Spain in 1845. Towards the close of his life he retired from active duties, and at his residence at Tupton House, Chesterfield, interested himself chiefly in farming and horticultural pursuits. He died 12th August 1848.

See Story of the Life of George Stephenson, by Samuel Smiles, 1857, new ed. 1873 ; and Smiles's Lives of British Engineers, vol. iii.






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