Stephenson Valve Gear

Published: September 26, 2023

By: Adam Burns

The Stephenson valve gear was invented by Robert Stephenson and used extensively in American steam locomotives from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century.

It is a mechanism that controls the timing and amount of steam entering and exiting the cylinders, thus regulating the locomotive's power and speed. The gear is characterized by its use of two eccentrics, set at 90 degrees apart, allowing for a great deal of precision in control.

Despite its complexity and need for precise adjustment, the Stephenson  was favored for its adaptability to a wide range of speeds and loads

This article offers a brief history and overview of the Stephenson type, how it worked, and why it eventually replaced by the Walschaerts valve gear on most American railroads.


The Stephenson valve gear is a design that revolutionized the steam locomotive, invented by engineers George and Robert Stephenson circa 1841 in Newcastle, England.

This sophisticated valve gear allowed changes in the timing of the intake and exhaust of steam in the cylinder, which greatly improved the engine's effectiveness.

George Stephenson

George Stephenson was born on June 9, 1781, in Wylam, Northumberland, England. He was the second of six children born to a poor working-class family that fueled his humble beginnings and tenacity for self-improvement.

George's journey to become one of the most influential figures in railroading started at a young age when he worked as a fireman at Wylam Colliery.

The mechanical skills he picked up from here began shaping his profound interest in steam engines. His later work at Killingworth pit led to his practical engagement with locomotives.

Known as the 'Father of Railways,' George invented several pioneering steam locomotives. His most notable invention happened in 1814, when he built his first locomotive for hauling coal. Later, his 'Locomotion No. 1' embarked on its inaugural journey at the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825.

In 1815, George Stephenson invented a key component of steam locomotive design that would revolutionize the industry - the Stephenson Safety Lamp, also known as the "Geordie".

However, the most influential invention came later when he and his son Robert Stephenson improved upon existing valve gears to bring to life the Stephenson Valve Gear.

The Stephenson Valve Gear, invented circa 1841, was an ingenious system that controlled the flow and timing of steam into and out of the engine’s cylinders, significantly improving performance and efficiency.

Robert Stephenson, George's son, was an important part of his accomplishments. Robert became a skillful engineer under his father's guidance, and they worked jointly on many steam locomotive designs.

Robert's crucial involvement in building railway lines and the famous 'Rocket' locomotive added considerable value to their jointly managed company. By grasping the strengths of his father's design and incorporating them into his own, Robert took the family name and their innovation to unprecedented heights.

Robert Stephenson and Company, established in 1823, specialized in building long-lasting, reliable locomotives.

This company, founded as George Stephenson & Son, became the most prominent locomotive manufacturer for freight and passenger trains in England during the 19th century.

The Stephenson locomotives were renowned not just for their efficiency but also for their reliability and robustness. Under their guidance, the firm produced thousands of steam locomotives which were sold around the world.

The innovative engineering solutions brought forth by George and further refined by Robert Stephenson significantly expedited the transportation revolution in the 19th century. Their work vastly expanded global commerce, enhancing the lives of countless individuals in the process.

The contributions of George Stephenson didn't only shape the history of railways but also contributed to the onset of the industrial revolution, playing a pivotal role in shaping the modern world.

Despite facing many challenges — both professional and personal — George's pursuit of mechanical perfection never wavered. His innovations consistently delivered unprecedented benefits to the railway industry, paving the way for advancements that still echo today.

George Stephenson's influence reaches far beyond his time. Even after his death on August 12, 1848, his legacy continues to impact present-day railroading, mechanical engineering, and transportation at large.

Today, the work of George Stephenson and his son Robert remain central to the studies of mechanical and civil engineering students worldwide, offering valuable insights into the dawn of the railway age.

Despite numerous limitations, such as rudimentary machinery and shortage of skilled labor during his time, George’s relentless determination drove him to overcome and succeed, thereby substantiating the age-old adage of triumph amid adversity.

The development of railroads owes significantly to Stephenson not only because of his innovations but also due to his unwavering belief in the potential of steam-powered transportation. His perseverance literally paved the way for many of the modern conveniences we enjoy today.

George Stephenson’s life and achievements continue to inspire contemporary engineers and enthusiasts alike, reminding us all about the power of curiosity, imagination and relentless determination.

The humble beginnings and meteoric rise of George Stephenson validate the transformative power of education, creativity, and vigilance, inspiring generations to think big and work hard towards achieving their dreams.

From his early life as a self-taught mechanic to his final days as a celebrated engineer, George Stephenson’s life-story reminds us of how passion, paired with curiosity and persistence, can change the world and lay tracks for future generations.

The collaborative work of George and Robert Stephenson manifested a golden era in locomotive engineering, fostering technological evolution that, up until this day, continues to drive the wheels of progress.

The Stephenson valve gear, being one of George's paramount contributions, was integral to steam locomotive development, enabling more power-efficient and adaptive engines capable of driving the heavy loads of expanding industrial societies.

The legacy of George and Robert Stephenson lives on, not only in the annals of railroading history but in the onward march of human progress itself.


Understanding the functionality of the Stephenson valve gear requires a grasp of basic steam engine principles. The gear works by controlling the flow of steam into and out of the engine's cylinders.

This involves complex mechanisms that respond sensitively to the engine's speed and power needs, ensuring the most efficient use of steam.

The main components of the Stephenson include a pair of eccentric cams mounted on the locomotive's axle, rods connecting these cam to the sliding valves, and a reversing lever, enabling the driver to control the phase of the valves.

The astonishing popularity of the Stephenson in the United States throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries can be attributed to its simplicity, reliability, and adaptability.

Its clever design allowed it to function likewise with a broad range of steam pressures and train speeds, proving it an asset for the rapid expansion of American railroads.


However, like many steam technologies, the Stephenson valve gear's popularity waned. Factors such as the design's hidden location (requiring the locomotive to be partially disassembled for maintenance) along with its difficulty to lubricate and adjust once installed.

When compared to its contemporaries, the Baker and the Walschaerts valve gear, the primary point of difference for the Stephenson was its compatibility with both high-speed passenger engines and heavy freight engines.

Its unique attributes accounted for variations in steam pressure and temperature, maintaining an effective process for steam intake and exhaust.

The Baker valve gear, developed by Americans in the early 20th century, noted for its durability was considered a serious contender against the Stephenson Valve Gear. It was easier to adjust and maintain due to its external structure. However, it was more complex to manufacture, resulting in higher production costs.

On the other hand, the Belgian designed Walschaerts Valve Gear, first used in 1844, was less sensitive to variations in steam pressure and had simpler components, which were easier to adjust than the Stephenson Valve Gear.

More accessible for maintenance due to its external set-up, the Walschaerts Valve Gear gained preference in Europe.

Hallmark Features

Nevertheless, the hallmark of the Stephenson valve gear's design was its versatility. The ability of the gear to cater to a variety of trains, steam pressures, and speeds, and to adjust the timing of steam release, made it popular despite maintenance challenges.

The Stephenson witnessed its zenith of popularity during the age of steam locomotives. It contributed markedly to improving locomotive technology and played a significant role in powering the industrial revolution, particularly in America during the 19th century.

The Stephenson's influence, however, extends beyond its era. Concepts from the Gear were borrowed and modified in later designs, including the Baker valve gear and Walschaerts valve gear.

Despite having fallen out of use in mainstream transportation, the Stephenson retains its value in the realm of steam engine enthusiasts and historians. Its design and principles are studied extensively, offering valuable insights into a bygone industrial era.

In sum, the Stephenson valve gear exemplifies the ingenuity and mechanical sophistication of the steam era. Its influence on steam-powered transportation and its iconic place within the history of mechanical engineering remain undeniable.


To conclude, while it may be no longer in widespread use, the remarkable engineering features and historical import of the Stephenson valve gear retain strong interest among steam power enthusiasts and engineering historians alike.

It serves as a testament to the industrial age's ingenuity and prowess and the irrepressible drive of human progress.


  • Morrison, Tom. American Steam Locomotive In The Twentieth Century. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019.
  • Simpson, Walter. Steam Locomotive Energy Story, The.  New York: American University Presses, 2021.
  • Solomon, Brian. Alco Locomotives. Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2009.
  • Solomon, Brian.  Baldwin Locomotives.  Minneapolis:  Voyageur Press, 2009.
  1. Home
  2.  ›
  3. Steam Locomotives
  4.  ›
  5. Stephenson Valve Gear

Recent Articles

  1. General Pershing Zephyr (Train)

    Dec 01, 23 09:49 PM

    The General Pershing Zephyr was a streamlined passenger train operated by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy between Kansas City and St. Louis.

    Read More

  2. "Pioneer Zephyr" (Train)

    Dec 01, 23 09:45 PM

    The Burlington's Pioneer Zephyr was its original streamliner also known as the Zephyr 9900 that debuted in April, 1934.

    Read More

  3. St. Paul Pass and Taft Tunnel (Railroad)

    Dec 01, 23 08:59 PM

    The Milwaukee Road's St. Paul Pass Tunnel crossed the Bitterroot Mountains near Idaho. It was opened in 1908 and was over 1.5 miles in length.

    Read More

Wes Barris's is simply the best web resource on the study of steam locomotives. 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website. 

It is quite staggering and a must visit!