Trevithick, Richard

Builder of the world's first steam locomotive to run on rails. He was born at Illogan, near Redruth, into a Methodist family on 13 April 1771. His father Richard Trevithick (1735-1797) was a mine captain and a Methodist class leader. The family moved to a larger house at Penponds, near Camborne, in which it is believed John Wesley stayed on one of his visits to the area. Methodism seems not to have played much of a part in the son's development; but, although described as 'a disobedient, slow, obstinate and spoiled boy, he was later known as 'unassuming and gentle', which may suggest its influence on him.

Richard junior grew up in a world of tin and copper mining, where steam-driven beam engines designed by Newcomen and Watt were used to pump out water from the workings. These stationary engines ran at low pressure and were very heavy. Trevithick saw that using high-pressure steam would make them both more efficient and lighter and he conceived the possibility of their being adapted for self-propulsion. After some unsuccessful experiments with steam-driven road carriages, he was invited in 1802 to construct a locomotive to run on the primitive 'waggonways' around Coalbrookdale in Shropshire.There is some doubt whether this first engine ever ran, but a rather larger one of similar design for the Penydarren Ironworks was successfully tried on the Merthyr Tramroad in South Wales. Because its weight repeatedly broke the thin iron rails, after one more trial in London in 1808, Trevithick concentrated on developing stationary engines, spending some years around the silver mines in South America. He returned home impoverished and died at Dartford, Kent, on 26 April 1833.

His third son, Francis Trevithick (1812-1877), became Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London & North Western Railway, for which he designed some very successful locomotives. The youngest son, Frederick Henry Trevithick, born in 1816, was one of the first trustees of Foundry WM Church, Hayle, contributing £20 towards its construction. A Charles Trevithick (possibly a grandson) was also a trustee in 1873.

  • L.T.C. Rolt, The Cornish Giant: the Story of Richard Trevithick (1960)
  • Anthony Burton, Richard Trevithick - Giant of Steam (2000)


See also

Entry written by: PWG
Category: Person
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