George Stephenson was a pioneering railway engineer and inventor of the ‘Rocket’, the most famous early railway locomotive.
George Stephenson was born on 9 June 1781 near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He was one of eight children whose parents were so poor that all lived in a single room.
George had to watch cows for a neighbor, but he managed to get time to make engines of clay, with hemlock sticks for pipes. At seventeen he had charge of an engine, with his father working at a coalmine. He could neither read nor write but he learned to read and write in his spare time. He learnt a lot from engines, they were his teacher and he the student. While the other hands were playing games or loafing in liquor shops during the holidays, George was taking his machine to pieces, cleaning it, studying it, and making experiments in engines.
He soon gained a reputation for managing the primitive steam engines employed in mines, and worked in a number of different coalmines in the northeast of England and in Scotland.
In 1814, Stephenson constructed his first locomotive, ‘Blucher’, for hauling coal at Killingworth Colliery near Newcastle. In 1815, he invented a safety lamp for use in coalmines, nicknamed the ‘Geordie’.
In 1821, Stephenson was appointed engineer for the construction of the Stockton and Darlington railway. It opened in 1825 and was the first public railway. The following year Stephenson was made engineer for the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. In October 1829, the railway’s owners staged a competition at Rainhill to find the best kind of locomotive to pull heavy loads over long distances. Thousands came to watch. Stephenson’s locomotive ‘Rocket’ was the winner, achieving a record speed of 36 miles per hour.
When he had become famous as a great inventor of improvements in engines, those who had loafed and played called him lucky not knowing that by steadfastly keeping at it, by indomitable will power, that great men win their positions in life.
The opening of the Stockton to Darlington railway and the success of ‘Rocket’ stimulated the laying of railway lines and the construction of locomotives all over the country. Stephenson became engineer on a number of these projects and was also consulted on the development of railways in Belgium and Spain.
Stephenson died on 12 August 1848 in Chesterfield in Derbyshire. His only son Robert was also a railway engineer and worked with his father on many of his projects.