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British Industrial History

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Engineers and Mechanics Encyclopedia 1839: Railways: The Early Steam-Engine

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In the year 1802 Richard Trevithick and Andrew Vivian invented and took out a patent for the first locomotive steam-engine, which was, in the second year afterwards, brought into practical operation.

The merit of the first suggestion of steam-carriages has been attributed to different individuals; but the probability is, that the idea of applying the steam-engine for the purposes of locomotion was coeval with its first invention. Thus Savery, from having considered its possibility, and Dr. Robison, from having suggested it to Watt, have by some been regarded as the inventors; but almost as well might we regard the philosophic poet Darwin to have been the inventor, who prophesied-

“Soon shall thy arm, unconquered steam! afar,
Drag the slow barge, and drive the rapid eon!"


In a note to a late edition of Dr. Robison's Mechanical Philosophy, Mr. Watt states,-

"My attention was first directed in the year 1759 to the subject of steam-engines, by the late Dr. Robison, then a student in the University of Glasgow, and nearly of my own age. He at that time threw out the idea of applying the power of the steam-engine to the moving of wheel-carriages, and to other purposes; but the scheme was soon abandoned on his going abroad."

In the patent granted to James Watt in 1784, he gave an account of the adaptation of his mechanism to the propulsion of land carriages. The boiler of this apparatus he proposed should be made of wooden staves, joined together, and fastened with iron hoops like a cask. The furnace to be of iron, and placed in the inside of the boiler, so as to be surrounded on every side with water. The boiler was to be placed on a carriage, the wheels of which were to receive their motion from a piston working in a cylinder, the reciprocating motion being converted into a rotatory one, by toothed wheels, revolving with a sun and planet motion, and producing the required velocity by a common series of wheels and pinions. By means of two systems of wheel-work, differing in their proportion, he proposed to adapt the power of the machine to the varied resistance it might have to overcome from the state of the road. A carriage for two persons might, he thought, be moved with a cylinder of seven inches in diameter, when the piston had a stroke of one foot, and made sixty strokes a minute.

Mr. Watt, however, never built a steam-carriage. It is well known that Mr. Watt retained, up to the period of his death, the most rooted prejudices against the use of high steam; indeed, he says himself, -

"I soon relinquished the idea of constructing an engine on this principle, from being sensible it would be liable to some of the objections against Savery's engine, viz, the danger of bursting the boiler, and also that a great part of the power of the steam would be lost, because no vacuum was formed to assist the descent of the piston."— Watt's Narrative.

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