Stephenson's Rocket, The First Modern Steam Locomotive
Stephenson's Rocket is widely acclaimed as the world's first
modern steam locomotive, constructed with many components that became
standard on all future designs until the coming of the diesel in the
early 20th century. However, the little 0-2-2 was not an American-built
steamer, it was constructed in 1829 by the top manufacturer's of the
day located in England, George and Robert Stephenson's father-and-son
business, the Robert Stephenson & Company. During those early years
of steam a number of English builders, like the Stephensons, were
constructing locomotives for new lines springing up in the United States
like the Mohawk & Hudson, Camden & Amboy, and Delaware &
Hudson Canal Company. However, none offered the newest technologies
built with the Rocket such as multiple flues and horizontal
pistons. Today, the original locomotive remains preserved at London's
renowned Science Museum and on display although it is somewhat modified
from its early test trials.
Steam locomotives were nothing new even by 1830 as Richard Trevithick of
England was the first to successfully develop such when he showcased
his initial design on February 21, 1804. The English were also the
first to begin building and developing railroads around the same time,
more than 20 years before such means of transportation began to appear
in the States. Until the development of Stephenson's Rocket,
locomotives were built with a single pipe within the boiler to transfer
heat between the exhaust gasses and water, which produced steam to drive
the pistons that then drove the rods and wheels. Additionally, most
early steamers featured vertically mounted pistons that not only caused
the locomotive to be unstable when in operation (causing it to sway) but
also resulted in a bumpy, and uneven ride for passengers.
Credit for the Stephenson's Rocket has often been given to father, George Stephenson, although it remains unknown how much outside help he had in creating the new design particularly from his son, Robert. In any event, the purpose behind the locomotive's creation in the first place was to test new models for the Rainhill Trials being held by the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in an attempt to build a technologically advanced machine that surpassed all others of its day. These trails were held in Rainhill, Lancashire (England) along the nearly completed L&MR. Several stipulations were set forth for the trails, however: locomotives must be started cold and able to then travel 35 miles with ten trips at 1.75 miles per journey; if fuel (water and wood/coal) is included on aboard it could be added as part of the locomotive's weight although may be subtracted; fuel was to be refilled after each trip; and finally all trips were to be accurately recorded.
In total, five locomotives took part in the October 6, 1829 trials the Cycloped, Novelty, Perseverance, Rocket, and Sans Pareil.
The Stephensons' locomotive was just four tons and burned coke, a more
refined bi-product of coal. It featured a rather odd 0-2-2 wheel
arrangement with just one axle of drivers, powered by pistons set at
35-degree angle. This setup gave the steamer more stability while in
operation. Its firebox was unique in that it was separated from the
boiler and surrounded by water with multiple copper flues (pipes)
leading through the boiler, submerged in water themselves. This was
then transferred to steam and sent to the two pistons, which drove the
lead drivers. The addition of so many copper pipes made for a more
efficient, and powerful, use of steam, which generated more speed and
The Stephenson's Rocket was also the first to use a blastpipe. This contraption worked as a vacuum to feed spent steam from the pistons towards the base of the smokestack and by doing so pulled in air through the firebox. Oxygen, of course, allows fires to strive and the blastpipe allowed for more heat and efficient operations. During the trails the Rocket reached speeds of 24 mph to the spectacle of 15,000 folks in attendance the fastest of any locomotive that participated (it also completed 20 trips, twice the number specified in the rules). For its first few years of service the little 0-2-2 was used on the aforementioned Liverpool & Manchester Railway, which connected its namesake cities. After being sold for use on the Lord Carlisle's Railway, which served Tindale and Kirkhouse, it was retired in 1840.
In 1862 the locomotive was recognized for its historical
significance and donated to London's Patent Office Museum still in
relatively good condition but
somewhat modified from its original design (such as nearly horizontal
pistons that were no longer angled to 35 degrees). Today, the original
Stephenson's Rocket is on full display at London's Science Museum albeit no longer sporting its trailing carriage (tender).
Of note, there is also a replica of the locomotive on display at
Nuremberg's Transport Museum in Germany. This version more closely
resembles what the original model looked like and also features a matching tender.
To learn more about the Stephenson's Rocket please click here to visit the Science Museum's official website.
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