George Stephenson (1781–1848)

George Stephenson is often called the father of the modern railway. As a civil engineer of railway routes and a mechanical engineer of rails and locomotives during the industrial revolution, he transformed transport.

Stephenson was self-taught as an engineer. He was born at Wylam in the north-east of England to a poor and illiterate family with no opportunity for education. He began his working life as a child labourer and could not read or write until he was aged 18. In his teens he was given more and more responsible jobs with colliery steam engines and he went to night-school for elementary education. To earn more money he learned to repair clocks and watches. In 1811, after making improvements to a pumping engine that was not working properly, he was put in charge of all the engines belonging to an alliance of coal owners in north-east England.

In his thirties, his true career began. He built his first railway locomotive, Blücher, in 1814 for Killingworth colliery. This improved on the earlier work of Richard Trevithick and John Blenkinsop to make a more reliable locomotive. In 1815, he invented a safety lamp for use in mines (the same year Humphry Davy invented one). He then began to design complete railways. He built the Hetton Colliery Railway in 1822 and in 1825 the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which he designed from the start to use locomotives and wrought-iron edge-rails. With his son Robert in 1823 he set up an engineering company in Newcastle upon Tyne to build locomotives. The most famous was Rocket, which won tests in a competition with others at the Rainhill Trials on 6 October 1829. Robert Stephenson and Company became the dominant locomotive builder of the nineteenth century, exporting engines around the world.

Railways evolved during the industrial revolution from precursors in the Middle Ages. However, Stephenson’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830 is considered the first modern main-line railway because it brought together several defining characteristics. It had specialised track and locomotives, it had a level route, it was subject to public control, it connected urban centres and it carried public traffic and passengers. The gauge Stephenson chose for his railways, 1.435 metres (4 feet 8.5 inches) became the standard across Britain and much of the world.

As the ‘railway mania’ began in the 1830s, Stephenson was called to design railways all over Britain. The most important were the Grand Junction connecting his Liverpool and Manchester Railway to Birmingham, and the North Midland Railway connecting the midlands to Yorkshire. He advised on railways in Belgium and Spain.

With his great wealth Stephenson bought land in the English midlands and owned collieries and lime works. He supported mechanics institutes to train young people and in 1847, the year before his death, he founded the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.