Renowned as the ‘Father of the Railways', George Stephenson was born
in Wylam, Northumberland in 1781. He followed his father into the local
coal mines, beginning his career as assistant fireman to his father.
Ambitious, although not educated, Stephenson was technically able and
prepared to learn. While working as engine-wright at the Killingworth
Colliery, he invented the miners’ safety lamp which he tested by taking
it into a particularly volatile region of the mine; although the
experiment was risky, he emerged safely. As a reward £1000 was raised
and presented to Stephenson by North-eastern industrialists.
famous as a railway pioneer, Stephenson had watched developments in the
area of steam locomotion with interest, and from 1815 onwards, carried
out key experiments and developments at Killingworth wagonway. By 1818,
the wagonway had been entirely relaid with cast-iron edge-rails
developed and patented by Stephenson in cooperation with the iron-making
firm of Losh, Wilson and Bell. By 1820, when the line was replaced with
wrought iron track, haulage by horse had virtually disappeared at
In 1821, Stephenson was appointed engineer to the
Stockton and Darlington Railway, the first passenger railway in the
world. Here he fought hard for the use of steam locomotives over
horse-power, at the same time establishing Robert Stephenson & Co.
to supply locomotives and other steam engines. Four winding engines and a
steam locomotive were delivered to the Railway by the time it opened in
1825, and Locomotive No.1 hauled a fully loaded train along the line at
After his success at the helm of the Stockton and
Darlington Railway, Stephenson was invited to assist with other railway
schemes, most importantly the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
Opposition from local farmers and landowners meant adequate surveying
could not be carried out, and a parliamentary bill was rejected in 1825.
A bill of 1826 was more successful, and Stephenson was appointed
engineer. Whether to use fixed or locomotive engines was fiercely
debated, and the Rainhill trials were held in 1829 as a test of the
locomotive power advocated by Stephenson. A prize of £500 was offered to
the winner. Of the four competing engines, Stephenson’s, the Rocket,
was pronounced the winner after running 12 miles in 53 minutes. The line
officially opened the following year.
For the next fifteen
years, George Stephenson was involved in most of the railway schemes of
the time. An important result of Stephenson’s involvement, and his
vision of a national, unified rail network, was the adoption of a
‘standard’ gauge of rail spacing. He retired in 1845, and in 1847 became
the first President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He died
in 1848. Stephenson’s support for the fledgling Institution in the last
year of his life was a final and lasting legacy to his chosen
click here to read his Presidential Address in which he advised
young engineers in the ways of the profession and related anecdotes from