Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 132,819 pages of information and 210,387 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
George Stephenson (1781 – 12 August 1848) was an English mechanical engineer who designed the famous and historically important steam locomotive named Rocket and is known as the "Father of Railways". The Victorians considered him a great example of diligent application and thirst for improvement, with self-help advocate Samuel Smiles particularly praising his achievements. His rail gauge of 4 ft 8.5 in, sometimes called "Stephenson gauge", is the world's standard gauge.
In 1748, a wagonway, similar to a railway, but with wooden track for horse-drawn carts, had been built, running for several miles from Wylam Colliery to the River Tyne. Stephenson grew up near it.
He commenced work as a ‘picker’, clearing out stones from coal, and then became driver of the horses working the colliery gin at Black Callerton Colliery.
1795 Age 14. He was appointed an assistant fireman to his father at Dewley Colliery
In 1802 he gained employment as an engine-man at a coal mine, the Dolly pit, and lodged nearby, where he met Frances Henderson (1769–1806), a farm servant. The couple were married on 28 November 1802 at Newburn church.
He became engine man at a new engine at Willington Quay to the east of Newcastle, where he was responsible for emptying ballast from coal ships returning unladen from London
1803 October 16th. Birth of only son Robert Stephenson
In 1804 the Stephenson family moved to Killingworth following George's appointment as brakesman to the West Moor Colliery engine.
1806 May 14th. Frances Stephenson died of consumption soon after giving birth to a daughter who did not long survive.
1808 George Stephenson entered into a joint contract with two other men to work the engines of the Killingworth pit, which was part of the Grand Alliance Company.
1811 Solved the problem of the unreliable Newcomen pumping engine at the Killingworth High pit; Stephenson was rewarded with a payment of £10. He was placed in charge of machinery at all of the Grand Allies' collieries at a salary of £100 per annum.
1814 Stephenson designed his first locomotive, a travelling engine designed for hauling coal on a coal site. Named Blücher after the Prussian general Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, who fought Napoleon at Waterloo, it could haul 30 tons of coal, and was the first successful flanged-wheel adhesion locomotive: its traction depended only on the contact between its flanged wheels and the rail. Over the next five years, he built 16 more engines.
1815 His ingenuity also found other outlets. In 1815, he developed a miners' safety lamp, known as the Geordie Lamp to distinguish it from the Davy Lamp invented by Humphry Davy at much the same time. (There was controversy over which was invented first.)
1820 As his success grew, Stephenson was hired to build the 8-mile (13-km) Hetton Colliery Railway to Sunderland in 1820. The finished result used a combination of gravity down inclines and locomotives for level and upward stretches, and was the first railway to use no animal power at all.
In 1821, the project to build the Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR) began. The original plan was to use horses to draw coal carts on metal rails, but after company director Edward Pease met Stephenson he agreed to change the plans. Work began in 1822
In September 1825 Stephenson completed the first locomotive for the new railway: originally named Active, it was soon renamed Locomotion. The S&DR opened on 27 September 1825. Driven by Stephenson, Locomotion hauled an 80-ton load of coal and flour nine miles (15 km) in two hours, reaching a speed of 24 miles per hour (39 km/h) on one stretch. The first purpose-built passenger car, dubbed Experiment, was attached, and carried dignitaries on the opening journey. It was the first time passenger traffic had been run on a steam locomotive railway.
While building the S&DR, Stephenson had noticed that even small inclines greatly reduced the speed of locomotives (and even slight declines would have made the primitive brakes next to useless). He came to the conclusion that railways should be kept as level as possible. He used this knowledge while working on the Bolton and Leigh Railway and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR), executing a series of difficult cuts, embankments and stone viaducts to smooth the route the railways took. Defective surveying of the original route of the L&MR caused by the hostility of some of the affected landowners meant that Stephenson was given a very bad time during Parliamentary scrutiny of the original bill, which was rejected. A revised bill with a new alignment was submitted and passed in a subsequent session. The revised alignment presented a considerable problem: the crossing of Chat Moss, an apparently bottomless peat bog, which Stephenson eventually overcame by unusual means, effectively floating the line across it.
1829 As the L&MR approached completion, its directors arranged for a competition to decide who would build its locomotives, and the Rainhill Trials were run in October of that year. Stephenson's entry was Rocket, and its impressive performance in winning the contest made it arguably the most famous machine in the world.
1830 The opening ceremony of the L&MR, on 15 September 1830, was a considerable event, drawing luminaries from the government and industry, including the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. The day was marred by the death of William Huskisson, the Member of Parliament for Liverpool, who was struck and killed by Rocket, but the railway was a resounding success. Stephenson became a very famous man, and was offered the position of chief engineer for a wide variety of other railways.
His conservative views on the capabilities of locomotives meant that he tended to favour routes and civil engineering that were more costly than his successors thought necessary. For example, rather than the West Coast Main Line taking the direct route favoured by Joseph Locke over Shap between Lancaster and Carlisle, Stephenson was in favour of a longer sea-level route via Ulverston and Whitehaven. Locke's route was the one built. Stephenson therefore tended to become a reassuring name, rather than a cutting-edge technical adviser.
1847 He was the first president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on its formation. He had by this time settled into semi-retirement, supervising his mining interests in Derbyshire - tunnelling work for the North Midland Railway had revealed unworked coal seams, and Stephenson put much of his money into their exploitation. Rich and successful,
1848 August 12th. Died at Tapton House in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
His son, Robert Stephenson, was also a noted locomotive engineer, and was heavily involved in the creation of many of his father's engines from Locomotion onwards. Joseph Locke was initially apprenticed to George Stephenson, eventually being promoted to chief engineer on some of the schemes he instigated, such as the Grand Junction Railway.
The museum in Chesterfield, England has a room full of Stephenson memorabilia, including the straight thick glass tubes in which he (inventive to the last) grew his cucumbers to stop them curving. George Stephenson College, founded in 2001 on the University of Durham's Queen's Campus in Stockton-on-Tees, is named after him. Also named after him and his son is the Stephenson Railway Museum in North Shields.