This 9th of June marks the 228th anniversary of the birth of George Stephenson. And whilst we are seldom in the mood to celebrate our railways these days, it is certainly worth remembering this remarkable man, and the impact he had, not only on Britain, but the world.
Although most famous for his locomotive Rocket, Stephenson’s career in steam-powered transport began much earlier. The uneducated son of illiterate parents, the young George had slowly worked his way up the ladder in various North East collieries, before his engineering skill made itself known in fixing the pit engine at Killingworth. Following his promotion to enginewright, Stephenson became an expert in steam powered machinery, designing his first locomotive in 1814, to haul coal.
In 1818 he invented a version of the miner’s safety lamp, predating the famous Humphrey Davy, who accused him of stealing the idea, by a month. But it was his work on the Stockton to Darlington railway that truly marked his place in history. This humble 25 mile line was the first steam locomotive railway ever to carry passengers, and the “Stephenson gauge” of 4 feet 8½ inches became the standard for railways, not just in Britain, but all over the world.
The success of this line led to the construction of the Liverpool to Manchester line, and Stephenson was once again heavily involved. Having completed construction of the track, he went on to win the competition for the locomotive that would run on it, and his Rocket was the centre piece of a triumphant opening for the railway. The official ceremony to launch the new line was a grand affair, attended by the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington and others, and began with a procession of 8 trains setting out from Liverpool. The day was marred by the death of the MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson, who was reported to be so shocked by the speed and power of these new inventions that he was struck by one of the engines and killed.