Perhaps no modern invention in history was more important than the railroad, as it was the first one to actually change the way people thought about the world. A person's personal world when inland transportation power was provided by feet and horses was a very small one. Roads were treacherous, unlit, unpredictable and often impassable, and travelers were exposed to all kinds of hazards, including assault and robbery. So nobody traveled at night. Travel was expensive, and a large percentage of travelers were wealthy and male. Most people traveled little and many never went more than 20 miles from their homes their whole lives. It took a long time to get from one place to another; on a good, level road, with no weather-related delays, a top notch stage coach would do 10 miles a day. It could easily take a month to get from Boston to Philadelphia. With the invention of the railroad, suddenly this was all different. Travel became fast, simple and inexpensive. How fast? Within a few short decades, trains on a good track could do 60 mph, while slower trains did 15 to 20 mph. That run from Boston to Philadelphia would take about six hours. This was the first rapid transport in history.
But its importance does not end there. No invention played a more vital role in the Industrial Revolution than the steam locomotive and railroad. It created new industries and markets, stimulated manufacturing and trade, provided more jobs, increased production, and lowered prices. With business booming, companies developed new products, triggering a virtual explosion of new technological advances, inventions, and consumer products. All these advances led to a higher standard of living, which further increased the consumer market. By 1900, railroads had virtually revolutionized overland transportation and travel, pulling whole continents tightly together, both economically and politically.
George Stephenson, credited as being the primary inventor of the railroad, was born in 1781 in the coal mining village of Wylam, England. His father was a poor working man. Wagons loaded with coal passed through Wylam several times a day, drawn by horses, and the sight of them was etched into the young man's mind. Stephenson got a job at the mines as a picker, his duty being to clean the coal of stone, slate, and other impurities. Eventually, the enterprising Stephenson worked at several coal mines as a fireman, brakeman, and engineer. In his spare time he loved to tinker with any engine or piece of mining equipment that fell into his hands, and he became skilled at adjusting and repairing the engines found in the mining pumps. In 1804, he took a job working in a coal mine that used one of James Watt's steam engines, and this coincidence would have enormous consequences.
In 1812, Stephenson was appointed engine-wright at Killingworth Colliery [coal mine]. The next year, at the age of twenty, he began the construction of his first locomotive. After ten months' labor, his locomotive "Blucher" was completed and tested on July 25, 1814. This was a milestone accomplishment, as it was the most successful working steam engine that had ever been constructed up to then. But Stephenson was dissatisfied with the result, as the engine was not as he thought it ought to be and was just as expensive to run compared with the use of horses. So in the period 1814–16, he built a series of locomotives, trying to improve the steam engine as he went. In one improvement, he redirected the steam outlet from the cylinders into the smoke stack, thereby increasing the efficiency of the boiler markedly as well as lessening the annoyance caused by the escaping steam. By now Stephenson had established his reputation as an engine designer and gained the experience needed for his pivotal role in the development of the railways.
In 1815 Stephenson filed for his first engine patent, the work involving direct communication between cylinder and wheels using a ball and socket joint. The drive wheels were connected by chains. A new locomotive constructed on these principles was put into operation. The big impediment revealed by these first two engines, however, was the lack of any cushioning suspension, and there were also problems with the engine wheels. In 1816 he patented a shock-absorber suspension for the engine and iron wheels.
In 1820, the new Hetton Colliery Company commenced digging a mine for a rich seam of coal near the village of Hetton. Until then, collieries in that neighborhood sent their coal on horse-drawn wagons up a wagonway to the town of Penshaw, where it was loaded onto small vessels, taken down the river Wear, and re-transferred to larger boats for export to London and abroad. The Hetton Colliery, instead of following this path, decided to dispense with all of these middlemen and have its own direct, horseless wagonway connection to its own docks by the mouth of the river, eight miles to the northeast, for direct loading onto ocean-going vessels. The owners contacted Stephenson and hired him to oversee the construction of the railway, and he assumed his duties in March 1821. The new line was to be the first railway in the world to be designed to be powered by locomotives rather than animals.
Meanwhile, Stephenson was continuing to make improvement in his steam engine. In early 1822 these were significant enough to cause him to take out another patent, the official record reading: "George Stephenson, of Long Benton, Northumberland, Engineer, for certain improvements in steam engines." The patent description stated:" These improvements are designed to effect a more perfect vacuum in the condenser and cylinder than has been obtained by any of the old modes of constructing the condensing apparatus." The application was sealed [granted] March 21, 1822.
The Hetton Colliery Railway, using Stephenson's steam locomotives with their newly patented improvements, opened on November 18, 1822, and was regarded as one of the engineering wonders of the world. Crowds came from all directions to witness the marvel and saw each engine drawing after it seventeen wagons loaded, averaging sixty-four tons, at the rate of four miles an hour. The locomotives were called by the people of the neighborhood, possibly for the first time, "the iron horses."
There are two items in this group. The first is his original 1822 patent application, as filed with the British government, for the steam engine that powered the first railway. Document Signed, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, January 31, 1822. "To the Kings most Excellent Majesty, The humble petition of George Stephenson…Sheweth that your petitioner hath invented certain improvements in steam engines which invention he believes will be of general benefit and advantage; That your petitioner is the true and first inventor thereof, and that the same hath not been made or used by any other person or persons whatsoever to his knowledge or belief; Your petitioner therefore most humbly prays your Majesty will be graciously pleased to grant unto your petitioner, his executors, administrators and assigns, your Majesty's Royal Letters Patent under the great seal of Great Britain for the sole use, benefit and advantage of his said invention within England, Wales and the town of Berwick upon Tweed, for the term of 14 years, according to the statute in that case made and provided. And your petitioner will ever pray etc. George Stephenson." The complete patent description is printed in "The London Journal of Arts and Sciences", Volume 6.
The second item is Stephenson's certification for the patent application. Document Signed, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, January 31, 1822. "George Stephenson of Long Benton in the County of Northumberland, Engineer, maketh oath that he hath invented certain improvements in steam engines which invention he believes will be of general benefit and advantage; And this deponent saith that he is the true and first inventor thereof, and that the same hath not been made or used by any other person or persons whatsoever to his knowledge or belief. Sworn at the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne the thirty first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twenty two. George Stephenson." The document is notarized by notary Thomas Carr.
One the verso of this second item a government official indicates that the Application was sent for review. Autograph document signed, Whitehall, London, 16th February 1822. "His Majesty is pleased to refer this petition to Mr. Attorney or Mr. Solicitor General to consider thereof and report his opinion what might be properly done therein, whereupon His Majesty's further pleasure will be declared." The patent was approved March 21, 1822. What is unexpected, and additionally fascinating, is that the government official who approved this application and send it on was not a nameless bureaucrat, but the Home Secretary. And serving in his first month in that post was the future Prime Minister Robert Peel. Thus it is Peel's handwriting on the verso.
A search of public sell records indicates this to be the most important patent application to reach the market in at least four decades, and fails to disclose any other document whatsoever directly related to Stephenson's invention of the railroad. The significance of this set cannot be overstated.
While this was happening, in 1821, an Act of Parliament was passed that authorized a company owned by Edward Pease to build a horse railway that would link the collieries in West Durham, Darlington and the River Tees at Stockton. Stephenson arranged a meeting with Pease and suggested that he should consider building a locomotive railway, telling Pease that "a horse on an iron road would draw ten tons for one ton on a common road." He added that the locomotive that he had built at Killingworth was "worth fifty horses." According to Pease, Stephenson was very persuasive that day. He agreed, and Parliament revised the act to authorize steam engines instead of horses. Stephenson again supervised the construction and provided the engines. The result was the opening, in 1825, of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the first railway in the world to operate freight and passenger service with steam traction.