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Railroads England - The Steam Railway

( Originally Published 1927 )

MEN probably laughed at Roger Bacon, who said about 1216 that carriages would some day move without horses, and they certainly laughed at Solomon de Caus, a Frenchman, who was confined in an asylum in Paris on account of his mad notions, among which was the proposition that steam might be employed for the propulsion of carriages on land and ships at sea. The English Marquis of Worcester visited De Caus in 1641, heard some of his novel ideas concerning the use of the steam of boiling water, read a book on the subject he had written, and went home and built a steam-engine. Of this nobleman Macaulay wrote : "The Marquis had observed the expansive power of moisture rarifled by heat. After many experiments, he had succeeded in constructing a rude steam-engine, which he called a fire-waterwork, and which he pronounced to be an admirable and most forcible instrument of propulsion."

The Marquis, however, like Solomon de Caus, and many other inventors and explorers, was suspected of being mad and his fire-waterwork was regarded merely as a toy. Next Savery, a Cornish miner and engineer, built an engine for the purpose of raising water by the aid of fire and proposed the use of steam for propelling carriages on roads. He took no steps to carry out this suggestion in practical form, but by the middle of the eighteenth century the theory that had been laughed at in earlier days was attracting the attention of many experimental minds. Among those now interested was James Watt, to whom the idea was introduced by Dr. Robinson, a student at Glasgow, in 1759. "He threw out," said Watt, "the idea of applying the power of the steam-engine to the moving of wheel-carriages, and to other purposes; but the scheme was not matured, and was soon abandoned, on his going abroad."

Watt made use of this idea to the extent of describing an engine in which the expansive force of steam was utilized as the motive power in the specification of his patent of 1769 and also in that of 1784. Others were busy with the subject; a friend wrote to Watt that "one Moore, a linendraper of London, had taken out a patent for moving wheel-carriages by steam"; the linendraper, however, did not put his invention in practice, and Watt, although he described such a steam-driven vehicle, was too busy perfecting his condensing engine to build his proposed locomotive.

The first actual model of a steam-carriage, of which there is a record, was made by Cugnot, a Frenchman, who demonstrated his model to the Marshal de Saxe in 1763. With funds supplied by the French king he constructed an engine, but when it was set in motion it promptly proceeded to knock down a wall which was in its way. Regarded, there-fore, as too dangerous a machine for ordinary purposes, Cugnot's engine was stored as a curiosity in the Arsenal-Museum at Paris. An American, Oliver Evans, invented a steam-carriage in 1772 and later obtained from the State of Maryland the exclusive right to make and use such a vehicle, but did not follow up his invention. William Symington in 1786 exhibited the working model of a steam-carriage he had constructed to some professors of Edinburgh. The Scotch roads were so nearly impassable, however, that Symington gave over his steam-carriage and turned his attention to perfecting a steamboat.

William Murdoch, an assistant of Watt, built the first English model of a steam-carriage in 1784, constructed on the high-pressure principle and with three wheels. The boiler was heated by a spirit-lamp, and the entire machine was little more than a foot in height. One night, after returning from work at the mine in Redruth, Cornwall, Murdoch decided to try out his little locomotive and took it to the walk leading to a country church on the outskirts of town. The walk was narrow and bounded by high hedges. The inventor lighted his lamp, the water began to boil, and off went the engine, followed by Murdoch. The night was dark. The locomotive gained speed, and then were heard shouts from the road ahead. Hurrying his steps, Murdoch found that the clergyman of the parish, walking towards town, had encountered the hissing little demon, which he had taken to be a manifestation of Satan.

While various inventors were thus busied, the labor of working the coal mines of England was much simplified by the adoption of rail- and tram-roads, worked by horses. Watt's invention of the steam-engine had given a great impetus to manufacturing and trade of all kinds and soon it was proposed to extend the use of railroads from the collieries to the transportation of merchandise from town to town, especially in those districts where there were no canals available. In 1801 Dr. James Anderson, of Edinburgh, urged the general adoption of railways, worked by horse-power, on turnpike roads. "Diminish carriage expense but one farthing," said he, "and you widen the circle of intercourse; you form, as it were, a new creation, not only of stones and earth, and trees and plants, but of men also, and, what is more, of industry, happiness, and joy." The next year Mr. Edgeworth suggested a plan for the carriage of passengers. "Stage-coaches," he declared, "might be made to go at six miles an hour, and post-chaises and gentlemen's travelling carriages at eight, —both with one horse ; and small stationary steamengines, placed from distance to distance, might be made, by means of circulating chains, to draw the carriages, with a great diminution of horse-labour and expense."

Then Richard Trevethick, a captain in a Cornish tin-mine and a pupil of William Murdoch, deter-mined to build a steam-carriage to use on country roads. He took out a patent in 1802. The carriage he constructed looked like the ordinary four-wheeled stagecoach. It had one horizontal cylinder, which, with the boiler and the furnace-box, was placed in the rear of the hind axle; the motion of the piston was transmitted to a separate crank-axle, from which the axle of the driving-wheel derived its motion. This was the first successful high-pressure engine built on the principle of moving a piston by the elasticity of steam against the pressure only of the atmosphere.

Trevethick's steam-carriage excited considerable interest in Cornwall, but as that district was so re-mote from the commercial world the inventor and his cousin, Andrew Vivian, decided to take it to London to exhibit to business men. They set out with the locomotive for Plymouth, from which port it was to be conveyed to the metropolis by ship. As the two drove along the road their carriage battered down the rails of a gentleman's garden, but went merrily on. Then Vivian sighted a closed toll-gate on the highway ahead and called to Trevethick, who was seated behind, to slacken speed. The latter at once shut off steam, but the momentum of the carriage was so great that it went some distance and stopped just at the gate, which was opened like lightning by the toll-keeper.

"What have us got to pay here ?" asked Vivian.

"Na—na—na—na!" stammered the gateman, trembling in every limb, and his teeth chattering as if he had the ague.

"What have us got to pay, I say?" repeated Vivian.

"Na—noth—nothing to pay! My de—dear Mr. Devil, do drive on as fast as you can ! Nothing to pay!"

The locomotive arrived safely in London, was exhibited publicly, and pulled behind it a wheel-carriage filled with passengers. Crowds flocked to see it, but, actuated by some strange impulse, Trevethick gave over the exhibition and took his engine away. It had attracted much attention, however, and Sir Humphrey Davy, the inventor of the safety-lamp for use in mines, wrote to a friend : "I shall hope soon to hear that the roads of England are the haunts of Captain Trevethick's dragons—a characteristic name."

Such was the state of the roads that it was regarded as impractical to run a steam-carriage on them, and Trevethick gave up the notion of putting his invention to general use.

His interest in the subject of steam locomotion was presently renewed by hearing of large wagers a gentleman was making as to the weight which could be hauled by a single horse on the Wandsworth and Croydon iron tramway. The number and weight of wagons that a horse could draw was surprising, and Trevethick now studied the problem from a new angle, the combination of a steam-carriage and iron rails on which it might travel. He built a new type of carriage for this purpose and tried it in 1804 on the Merthyr Tydvil Railway in South Wales. The engine at its first demonstration succeeded in drawing after it several wagons containing ten tons of bar-iron at a rate of about five miles an hour. The boiler of this engine was cylindrical, flat at the ends, and made of cast-iron. The furnace and flue were in-side the boiler, within which the single cylinder was immersed upright. The motion of the wheels was produced by spur-gear, to which was added a fly-wheel on one side. The waste steam was thrown into the chimney through a tube inserted in it at right angles, an arrangement not designed to produce any result in the way of a steam-blast in the chimney, but intended, it would seem, to get rid of the nuisance caused by throwing the jet directly into the air. The inventor was on the verge of making a great discovery, but that he was unaware of the action of the blast in contributing to increase the draught and so quicken combustion is evident from the fact that he Used bellows for this purpose.

This engine, however, like Trevethick's first steam-carriage, was a practical failure. It drew a considerable load at a fair rate of speed, but its jolting motion champed up the cast-iron roadway, which was not constructed to bear so much weight. This matter of weight indeed seems to have presented an obstacle to many experimenters, who considered that if any heavy load were placed behind the engine the "grip" or "bite" of the smooth wheels of the locomotive upon the smooth iron rail would be so slight that the wheels would slip upon the rail and consequently that the locomotive would not make any progress. In an attempt to obviate this Trevethick had suggested that the periphery of the driving-wheels of the engine should be made rough by the projection of bolts or cross-grooves ; this plan had been adopted in the loco-motive used on the Merthyr Tydvil Railway, with the result that its progress had been a succession of jolts very trying to the rails of the mine tram-road.

Mines and cotton-mills were now more busy than ever and the increase of trade throughout England called for better means of transport than by horse-power. The steam-engine appeared to be the answer, and the problem of the moment was to discover a more effectual adhesion between the wheels and the rails. Mr. Blenkinsop, of Leeds, in 1811 took out a patent for a racked- or tooth-rail to be laid at one side of the road, into which the toothed-wheel of the locomotive should work as pinions do in a rack. The boiler of his engine was supported by a carriage with four wheels without teeth, and rested directly on the axles. These wheels were independent of the working parts of the engine and merely supported its weight on the rails, the progress being made by means of the cogged wheel working in the cogged-rail. The engine had a double cylinder, the invention of Matthew Murray, a mechanical engineer of Leeds. The connecting-rods gave the motion to two pinions by cranks at right angles to each other; these pinions communicated the motion to the wheel that worked in the toothed-rail.

Blenkinsop 's engines were put into use on the rail-way from the Middleton collieries to Leeds, a distance of about three miles and a half. They succeeded in drawing as many as thirty coal-wagons at a speed of about three miles and a quarter an hour. They were employed for many years in hauling coal and constituted the first regular use of locomotive power for commercial purposes.

Other plans were devised to solve the problem of adhesion between the wheel and the rail. The Messrs. Chapman, of Newcastle, invented a locomotive that worked along the road by means of a chain that was stretched from one end of it to the other. This chain was passed around a grooved barrel-wheel under the engine, and when the wheel turned the locomotive pulled itself along the railway. This method proved very clumsy and the mechanism was so expensive and so difficult to keep in repair that the invention was soon discarded. William Brunton, of the Butterly Works, in Derbyshire, patented in 1813 his Mechanical Traveller, a locomotive provided with legs and feet, that worked alternately at the rear of the engine like the limbs of a horse. In one of its trial runs the engine of this strange device unfortunately exploded and killed several bystanders, and the locomotive was sent to the scrap-heap, although other steam-carriages with legs were subsequently built and some of these were used outside London, where they climbed steep hills with surprising ease. All over the country odd-looking steam monsters were now puffing and prancing, as many men tried to work out the problem of locomotive traction upon railways.

A mine owner in the North of England, Mr. Blackett, of Wylam, made many experiments. The Wylam wagon-way was constructed of wooden rails laid between the colliery at Wylam and the village of Lemington, four miles down the Tyne. At Lemington the coal was loaded in barges and floated down the river past Newcastle and thence shipped to the London market. Each coal wagon from the mine was drawn by one horse, with a man in charge. This method of transport was so slow that only two trips were made by each man and horse in one day and three on the day following. In an effort to improve this condition Blackett took up the wooden road in 1808 and built a "plateway" of cast-iron, a single line with sidings. This new road proved so much smoother that a horse was able to draw two wagons over it instead of one. Then Blackett decided to try locomotive power and altered the road so that he might use the rack-rail and toothed driving-wheel worked out by Blenkinsop. He had an engine built according to Trevethick's patent, a very awkward affair which, when set on the rails, would not move an inch. Undiscouraged, he constructed another, which proved more successful, and was found capable of drawing eight or nine loaded coal wagons from the mine to Lemington. Its weight, however, was so great that the cast-iron plates on which it ran were constantly breaking. In addition it frequently got out of order, so that horses had to follow it to pull the wagons when the engine ceased its efforts, and it required so much attention in the way of repairs that the workmen declared it "a perfect plague.''

One dark evening "Black Billy," as the locomotive was named, was puffing along the High Street Road on its way up from Newburn. A stranger, who had never heard of the engine, was walking on the road and suddenly encountered the iron monster, working its piston up and down, snorting out loud blasts of steam and puffing fire and smoke. Frightened almost out of his senses, the stranger jumped a hedge, fled across the fields, and cried to the first person he met that he had just seen a "terrible deevil on the High Street Road." The story went around, and many were the jeers cast at Blackett on account of this "deevil" of his that scared wayfarers and set fire to trees and fields.

Notwithstanding jeers and opposition Blackett continued his experiments, studying now the pro-portion which the power of the engine should bear to the weight, and ultimately demonstrated that the weight of the engine would of itself produce sufficient adhesion to the rails to enable it to draw the requisite number of wagons on a smooth tram-road. This put an end to the fallacy on that point that had previously been such an obstacle to the use of steam-carriages, and proved that rack-rails, toothed-wheels, chains and legs were all unnecessary for the successful traction of loaded wagons on a road that was moderately level.

The steam that blew into the air at high pressure from the piston while the locomotive was moving considerably annoyed horses on the Wylam road, which was a public highway, and one of the neighbors threatened to take steps to prevent the nuisance. To diminish this objection to his plan Blackett gave orders that whenever any horse, or vehicle drawn by horses, came into view, the engine was to be stopped and the blast of steam discontinued until the animals were out of sight. This course of procedure caused much inconvenience to those who ran the locomotive, and so this scheme was adopted : a reservoir was provided directly behind the chimney, into which the waste steam was thrown after it had been used in the cylinder; from this reservoir the steam could gradually escape into the air without noise. This plan was devised expressly for the object of preventing any blast in the chimney, but the great value of this innovation was not appreciated until George Stephenson built his locomotive and established the steam railway in England.

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