Monday, July 19, 2010

George Stephenson: Rocket Man of the Rainhill Trials

In 1829, with the Liverpool-Manchester Railway line nearing completion, the railway engineers settled on a contest to see what kind of steam engine -- stationary or locomotive -- would be best suited to traversing the recently completed rail line. To get the best contenders out on the field, the Railway Company charged with constructing the line settled on holding a contest. A sum of GBP500 was settled on as the prize, and the Railway Company was astounded to receive thousands of suggestions from around the globe.

Only 5 of these suggestions would eventually take the field, as every other potential competitor was eliminated due to the rigorous requirements of the trials themselves. This competition at Rainhill, roughly nine miles out from Liverpool, changed transportation as we know it today, and forever solidified that locomotives were the best form of motive power on the railways.

The competitors consisted of a machine that used horses on a sort of treadmill and four different kinds of locomotives (image at right). One of those locomotives was the Rocket, the creation of George Stephenson -- a former mine engineer that had spent the past 16 years working on all manner of steam engines. Stephenson had already gained fame as the designer of the Stockton-Darlington Railway line, which began operations in 1825.

It should come as no surprise then that George Stephenson's Rocket won the day at Rainhill. This victory over the horse-drawn machine and the other locomotives solidified Stephenson's prominence among the railway engineers; not to mention helped precipitate a veritable explosion in railways throughout England.

By the time Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, there were 80 railway companies operating throughout the countryside. This railway boom resulted in 1,000 miles of track being laid in a single year. The first great Railway Boom was on.

Next week: Innovations that made the railways possible.


L. T. Host said...

Ah, to be a businessman in the time of the great revolutions in industry... I'm reading a bio of WR Hearst right now and I'm totally fascinated by both the ingenuity and seeming ease (only in comparison to today) of making a fortune back then.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Sweet! Man, I love those pictures. :)