Trevithick, Richard 1771 - 1833

(1771-1833), Engineer

Born in 1771 in Cornwall, Richard Trevithick was a practical engineer who developed high pressure steam engines. In 1800 he built the first of the double-acting stationary engine which was the forerunner of the famous ‘Cornish engines’. Between 1801 and 1803 he built three steam-powered road locomotives. In 1803 he built the first practical railway locomotive, a tram engine for Coalbrookdale. After that he constructed the ‘Pen-y-darren’ locomotive for Samuel Homfray, partner in the ‘Pen-y-darren Tramway’ in south Wales. Although this was not a success due to the quality of the track rather than the locomotive, it was a proof of principle. Trevithick built two more railway locomotives: one in Gateshead in 1805, possibly for the Wylam Waggon Way (which was again let down by the poor quality of the rails), and, in 1808, the ‘Catch me who Can’, for an exhibition in London. He is also important for demonstrating that a smooth wheel running on smooth iron rails was capable of hauling considerable loads.

He was involved in the unsuccessful project to drive a tunnel under the Thames from Rotherhithe. In 1816 he left his family and went to South America where he was involved in mining ventures in Peru. These also were ultimately unsuccessful, in part due to the wars of independence, and Trevithick returned, penniless, to England in 1827. Despite the setbacks he experienced, Trevithick’s inventive capacity was undiminished. His last patent was granted in 1832. He went to work for J. Hall in Dartford where he died on 22nd April 1833.

He was married to Jane Harvey (1772 – 1868/9), daughter of another Cornish engineer, John Harvey of Hayle Foundry and had six children, Francis and Frederick Henry, who both became engineers, and Richard, John, Ann and Elizabeth.