Great Minds:
George Stephenson (1781-1848)

George Stephenson went from growing up and laboring in an English mining town to advancing train technology that helped not only the mining industry, but travel worldwide. His steam engine modernized the current design of the time and helped create commercial train travel.

   Stephenson was known and admired for his philosophy of self-improvement. Born in a poor family, education was not a priority. He taught himself to read and write and used money from working in the mines to help further his education. It was also his work fixing machinery in those mines that gave him inside knowledge of mechanics. He soon found an interest in building and became a self-made engineer and inventor. He struggled for many years with having his inventions even considered due to his upbringing — he wasn’t considered an intellectual. But eventually his ideas became too good to ignore.

   After the patent on the steam engine lapsed, inventors jumped at the chance to develop it for commercial use. Stephenson believed that the engine could be used to help miners. He grew up watching horse-drawn carts carrying coal and iron down tracks and knew there was a faster, more efficient way.

   Using his vision and the current plans, he started building his own steam engine, slowly and carefully creating each part by hand. After ten months of painstaking work, his locomotive was tested by dragging 30 tons of materials on an uphill stretch of railroad for four miles. This marked the first steam locomotive journey made on tracks specifically created for industrial use.

   Stephenson went on to devise an improved type of track that could withstand the added weight of materials and he built more locomotives for more mines. He became a respected figure in the industry and in 1821 he persuaded a businessman to switch from building a horse-drawn travel railway to steam locomotive for travel between cities. In 1825 the engine took 450 people 25 miles between two towns at 15 miles per hour. This was the first outing of the world’s first public passenger steam train.

   By 1830 Stephenson’s new locomotive, the Rocket, which could reach 36 miles per hour, became the standard. More and more railways switched to these “iron horses.” His engine was the basis for creating countless steam engine models over the next hundred years.

   Stephenson opened his own factory to build more trains as his mode of travel became fully cemented as the railway age. This led to many milestones in world history, including the Industrial Revolution.

   The small one room cottage in the mining village of Wylam, England, where Stephenson was born, is now a tourist attraction in the care of the National Trust. From the son of a poor miner, to inventor, factory owner, and the first president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Stephenson proved that hard work, ingenuity, and thinking beyond the box can take you far!