Richard Trevithick (1771–1833)

Richard Trevithick made an enormous contribution to the development of steam power. He developed the use of high-pressure steam, and was responsible for some of the first steam locomotives.

The son of a mine manager in Cornwall, he was developing a high-pressure steam engine by 1796, which drove a road vehicle with some success in 1801-02. In 1802-03 he built a steam locomotive for the plateways at Coalbrookdale, which was probably never set to work, but in 1804 one of his locomotives pulled a train of wagons on the Penydarren Tramway near Merthyr, and other locomotives followed. One of them, the ‘Catch me who can’ was demonstrated on a circular track in London, not far from the site of the present Euston station.

Trevithick’s high-pressure steam engines were built at the foundry of John Hazledine at Bridgnorth, and one of them is displayed in the Science Museum, London. Trevithick’s most enduring invention was the Cornish engine, the final development of the condensing single-cylinder beam engine, the first of which was installed at the Wheal Prosper mine in Cornwall in 1811-12. High-pressure steam from a cylindrical boiler, with an innovatory internal furnace flue, was admitted above the piston while exhaust steam from the previous stroke was condensed below. The efficiency of the engine justified its high initial cost, and it was widely used for draining mines and for pumping drinking water and sewage.

Trevithick left England for Peru in 1816, hoping to build engines in South America, but returned penniless in 1828. The distinctive Cornish engine houses are a feature of the landscape of south-west England, but they can be found throughout Europe in city waterworks and sewage pumping stations, and in areas that were once sources of metallic ores.