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In Perspective: Remembering George Stephenson

George Stephenson

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As the new shiny five-pound note is rolled out, you may feel some nostalgia for the old crumpled faces that used to appear on them. Mechanical engineer, George Stephenson was one of those faces and today at Cobalt, we look back on his life and career. Stephenson is best known for building the first public inter-city railway to use steam locomotives, and he was renowned as the “Father of Railways”. He designed and built The Rocket locomotive, which thousands witnessed achieve a record of 36mph. He was also responsible for building the Hetton, Stockton and Darlington railways. His achievements directly influence much of the rail infrastructure that we use today.

Born in 1781 near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, George Stephenson was the second child to Robert and Mabel Stephenson, both who were illiterate. His father was an engineman at a coalmine, and Stephenson followed in his father’s footsteps by himself working at the mine, before becoming an engineman at Water Row Pit in Newham when he was just 17. Stephenson was eager to get an education, as his parents couldn’t afford to send him to school, so he enrolled in evening classes to learn to read and write, as well as basic arithmetic. His career progressed rapidly and he worked for a number of different coalmines around the North East of England and Scotland, becoming an expert in steam engine machinery.

However, it was in 1814 when Stephenson’s career reached new heights, as he constructed his first locomotive named, Blucher in honour of the Prussian general. It was a travelling engine for hauling coal at Killingworth Colliery near Newcastle, and this was a huge achievement as it was the first public railway, and could haul 30 tons of coal up a hill at 4mph. Blucher marked the first in a series of locomotives that Stephenson built between 1814-16. Initially, Blucher was only a mild success as it faced problems with insufficient levels of steam, but Stephenson significantly improved the engine’s power. Although it wasn’t the first of its kind, as engineer Richard Trevithick had invented the first steam engine many years earlier, Blucher was the first fully effective steam railway locomotive. Although no complete drawing of Blucher exists today, the locomotive will always be remembered as a milestone in transportation history.

Stephenson’s first locomotive elevated his reputation and in 1821, Stephenson was appointed engineer for the construction of the Stockton and Darlington railway.

Opening in 1825, it was the first public railway. However, the defining moment and turning point in Stephenson’s career was when he won the Rail Hill Trials, which was a competition to decide who would build the locomotives for the Liverpool and Manchester railway. Stephenson’s Rocket was the only locomotive to complete the trials and as a result, he became famous and was high in demand for many other railway projects. Stephenson became a legendary figure in mechanical engineering, and many American railway road builders came to Newcastle to learn from his innovations. By 1847, Stephenson had semi-retired and he became the first president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). This marked his last major achievement before his death in 1848, aged 67.

Stephenson’s work was the footprint for railways all over the world, paving the way for many engineers who followed, such as Joseph Locke and Isambard Kingdom Burnel, who were both major pioneers of railway development. Also, Stephenson’s own son, Robert Stephenson built on the achievements of his father, and became an in demand railway engineer during the years of ‘railway mania’. Today, George Stephenson has many memorials and commemorations, such his bronze statue in Chesterfield Railway. In the media, he was portrayed by actor Gawn Grainger in an episode of Doctor Who. Ultimately, Stephenson made a substantial contribution to the development of the railways with his steam power engines, which was a key element in the industrial revolution.

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