This series has six easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Better Locomotion Needed.
This story by Samuel Smiles has the mood of the Space Race a century and a half later. Following closely upon the beginning of steam-navigation, the introduction of railways, with cars drawn by steam-locomotives, was the greatest triumph, up to that period, of mechanical invention. People of the nineteenth century looked at the gigantic engines pulling lengthy trains on top of rails, obliterating travel time that vast distances necessitated with wonder and awe. As the decades followed, the earliest engines seemed quaint. They were nothing like that to their contemporaries.
This story of the great search for the engine that would make railway locomotion clearly practicable is one of the most important to our understanding of how the world about us came to be the way it is.
This selection is from The Life of George Stephenson by Samuel Smiles published in 1857. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Samuel Smiles was a Scottish who believed that more progress came from new attitudes than from new laws.
Time: October, 1829
Place: Rainhill, England
The works of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway were approaching completion. But, strange to say, the directors had not yet decided as to the tractive power to be employed in working the line when opened for traffic. The differences of opinion among them were so great as apparently to be irreconcilable. It was necessary, however, that they should come to some decision without further loss of time, and many board meetings were accordingly held to discuss the subject. The old-fashioned and well-tried system of horse haulage was not without its advocates; but, looking at the large amount of traffic to be conveyed, and at the probable delay in the transit from station to station if this method were adopted, the directors, after a visit made by them to the Northumberland and Durham railways in 1828, came to the conclusion that the employment of horse power was inadmissible.
Fixed engines had many advocates; the locomotive, very few: it stood as yet almost in a minority of one — George Stephenson. Grave doubts still existed as to the practicability of working a large traffic by means of traveling engines. The most celebrated engineers offered no opinion on the subject. They did not believe in the locomotive, and would scarcely take the trouble to examine it. The ridicule with which George Stephenson had been assailed by the barristers before the parliamentary committee had not been altogether distasteful to them. Perhaps they did not relish the idea of a man who had picked up his experience in Newcastle coal pits, appearing in the capacity of a leading engineer before Parliament, and attempting to establish a new system of internal communication in the country.
The directors could not disregard the adverse and conflicting views of the professional men whom they consulted. But Stephenson had so repeatedly and earnestly urged upon them the propriety of making a trial of the locomotive before coming to any decision against it, that they at length authorized him to proceed with the construction of one of his engines by way of experiment. In their report to the proprietors at their annual meeting on March 27, 1828, they say that they had, after due consideration, authorized the engineer “to prepare a locomotive- engine, which, from the nature of its construction and from the experiments already made, he is of opinion will be effective for the purposes of the company, without proving an annoyance to the public.” The locomotive thus ordered was placed upon the line in 1829, and was found of great service in drawing the wagons full of marl from the two great cuttings.
In the mean time the discussion proceeded as to the kind of power to be permanently employed for the working of the railway. The directors were inundated with schemes of all sorts for facilitating locomotion. The projectors of England, France, and America seemed to be let loose upon them. There were plans for working the wagons along the line by water-power. Some proposed hydrogen, and others carbonic acid gas. Atmospheric pressure had its eager advocates. And various kinds of fixed and locomotive steam-power were suggested. Thomas Gray urged his plan of a greased road with cog-rails; and Messrs. Vignolles and Ericsson recommended the adoption of a central friction rail, against which two perpendicular rollers under the locomotive, pressing upon the sides of this rail, were to afford the means of ascending the inclined planes.
The directors felt themselves quite unable to choose from amid this multitude of projects. Their engineer expressed him self as decidedly as heretofore in favor of smooth rails and loco motive-engines, which, he was confident, would be found the most economical and by far the most convenient moving power that could be employed. The Stockton and Darlington Rail way being now at work, another deputation went down person ally to inspect the fixed and locomotive engines on that line, as well as at Hetton and Killingworth. They returned to Liver pool with much information; but their testimony as to the relative merits of the two kinds of engines was so contradictory that the directors were as far from a decision as ever.
They then resolved to call to their aid two professional engineers of high standing, who should visit the Darlington and Newcastle railways, carefully examine both modes of working — the fixed and the locomotive — and report to them fully on the subject. The gentlemen selected were Mr. Walker, of Lime- house, and Mr. Rastrick, of Stourbridge. After carefully examining the working of the Northern lines, they made their report to the directors in the spring of 1829. They concurred in the opinion that the cost of an establishment of fixed engines would be somewhat greater than that of locomotives to do the same work, but they thought the annual charge would be less if the former were adopted. They calculated that the cost of moving a ton of goods thirty miles by fixed engines would be 6.40 pence (twelve and one-fifth cents), and by locomotives 8.36 pence, assuming a profitable traffic to be obtained both ways.
At the same time it was admitted that there appeared more grounds for expecting improvements in the construction and working of locomotives than of stationary engines. ” On the whole, however, and looking especially at the computed annual charge of working the road on the two systems on a large scale, Messrs. Walker and Rastrick were of opinion that fixed engines were preferable, and accordingly recommended their adoption to the directors.” And in order to carry the system recommended by them into effect, they proposed to divide the railroad between Liverpool and Manchester into nineteen stages of about a mile and a half each, with twenty-one engines fixed at the different points to work the trains forward.
Such was the result, so far, of George Stephenson’s labors. The two best practical engineers of the day concurred in reporting substantially in favor of the employment of fixed engines. Not a single professional man of eminence could be found to coincide with the engineer of the railway in his preference for locomotive over fixed engine power. He had scarcely a supporter, and the locomotive system seemed on the eve of being abandoned. Still he did not despair. With the profession against him and public opinion against him — for the most frightful stories went abroad respecting the dangers, the unsightliness, and the nuisance which the locomotive would create — Stephenson held to his purpose. Even in this, apparently the darkest, hour of the locomotive, he did not hesitate to declare that locomotive railroads would, before many years had passed, be the great highways of the world.
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