Richard Trevithick’s mighty steam locomotive honoured in Google Doodle

The British engineer Richard Trevithick, born 240 years ago today, invented the world’s first full-scale, working steam locomotive but died a pauper.

Train enthusiasts may know hisname, but to others “Today’s Google Doodle” may be something of a mystery. The steam locomotive proudly puffing away on the homepage is in fact celebrating the 240th anniversary of the birth of Richard Trevithick.

Google Doodle of Richard Trevithick's steam locomotive. Photograph: Google
Google Doodle of Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive. Photograph: Google

Born in Cornwall in 1771, Trevithick was enthralled by the possibilities of steam power. After following his father to work in the mines, he eventually produced a high-pressure steam engine at the rather quaintly named Ding Dong Mine at Land’s End.

This was in the age of James Watt and Matthew Boulton’s low-pressure steam engines, which had vastly improved the efficiency of the existing atmospheric engine, developed by Thomas Newcomen in 1712.

Newcomen’s engine worked on the principle of a single cylinder with a pumping piston inside. The piston was attached to an external beam, and after each stroke steam and water were injected into the cylinder below. The water condensed the steam to create a vacuum, which pulled the piston down and raised the end of the beam.

The problem was that the water was constantly cooling the main cylinder, so Watt added a second, smaller one next to it. This was close enough for condensation to occur, but avoided the inefficient cooling effect of the water being sent into the main cylinder.

Trevithick, like many others working in mining during the late 1790s, was tired of paying royalties to James Watt and Matthew Boulton for the use of their Newcomen steam engine design. His attempts to find ways to avoid using these condensers led him to explore the possibility of using high-pressure steam directly from boilers. This line of research was brought to an abrupt end when Watt successfully served him with an injunction to stop his modifications in 1796.

He only had to wait four years to begin his work once more, however, and in 1801 his patience won out. On Christmas Eve he sent his first full-sized road locomotive up Camborne Hill. In fact, if you’re from Cornwall you may have heard the folk song of the same name, which was inspired by this event.

Trevithick’s finest moment came three years later at a mine in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. Here the very first full-scale working steam locomotive travelling at a whopping 8 kilometres an hour (5 miles per hour) pulled 10 tonnes of coal and 70 men 15 kilometres along the cast-iron tracks.

Unfortunately the tracks were built for horses to pull loads on, and weren’t ready for the extra weight of the 7-tonne engine. They cracked. This was a recurring and, for Trevithick, unsolved problem and his engines met with little commercial success.

He then travelled to South America to work at a Peruvian silver mine. On his return to England more than a decade later, he was refused a government pension in 1828, despite other inventors fighting his corner.

This engineering genius of the railways eventually died in poverty at the Bull Inn in Dartford and was carried to a pauper’s grave by a group of local factory workers.