Age of Invention : A Chronicle of Mechanical Conquest

Author: Holland Thompson

Chapter III. Steam in Captivity

For the beginnings of the enslavement of steam, that mighty giant whose work has changed the world we live in, we must return to the times of Benjamin Franklin. James Watt, the accredited father of the modern steam engine, was a contemporary of Franklin, and his engine was twenty-one years old when Franklin died. The discovery that steam could be harnessed and made to work is not, of course, credited to James Watt. The precise origin of that discovery is unknown. The ancient Greeks had steam engines of a sort, and steam engines of another sort were pumping water out of mines in England when James Watt was born. James Watt, however, invented and applied the first effective means by which steam came to serve mankind. And so the modern steam engine begins with him.

The story is old, of how this Scottish boy, James Watt, sat on the hearth in his mother’s cottage, intently watching the steam rising from the mouth of the tea kettle, and of the great role which this boy afterwards assumed in the mechanical world. It was in 1763, when he was twenty-eight and had the appointment of mathematical-instrument maker to the University of Glasgow, that a model of Newcomen’s steam pumping engine was brought into his shop for repairs. One can perhaps imagine the feelings with which James Watt, interested from his youth in mechanical and scientific instruments, particularly those which dealt with steam, regarded this Newcomen engine. Now his interest was vastly. quickened. He set up the model and operated it, noticed how the alternate heating and cooling of its cylinder wasted power, and concluded, after some weeks of experiment, that, in order to make the engine practicable, the cylinder must be kept hot, "always as hot as the steam which entered it." Yet in order to condense the steam there must be a cooling of the vessel. The problem was to reconcile these two conditions.

At length the pregnant idea occurred to him—the idea of the separate condenser. It came to him on a Sunday afternoon in 1765, as he walked across Glasgow Green. If the steam were condensed in a vessel separate from the cylinder, it would be quite possible to keep the condensing vessel cool and the cylinder hot at the same time. Next morning Watt began to put his scheme to the test and found it practicable. He developed other ideas and applied them. So at last was born a steam engine that would work and multiply man’s energies a thousandfold.

After one or two disastrous business experiences, such as fall to the lot of many great inventors, perhaps to test their perseverance, Watt associated himself with Matthew Boulton, a man of capital and of enterprise, owner of the Soho Engineering Works, near Birmingham. The firm of Boulton and Watt became famous, and James Watt lived till August 19, 1819—lived to see his steam engine the greatest single factor in the new industrial era that had dawned for English-speaking folk.

Boulton and Watt, however, though they were the pioneers, were by no means alone in the development of the steam engine. Soon there were rivals in the field with new types of engines. One of these was Richard Trevithick in England; another was Oliver Evans of Philadelphia. Both Trevithick and Evans invented the high-pressure engine. Evans appears to have applied the high pressure principle before Trevithick, and it has been said that Trevithick borrowed it from Evans, but Evans himself never said so, and it is more likely that each of these inventors worked it out independently. Watt introduced his steam to the cylinder at only slightly more than atmospheric pressure and clung tenaciously to the low-pressure theory all his life. Boulton and Watt, indeed, aroused by Trevithick’s experiments in high-pressure engines, sought to have Parliament pass an act forbidding high pressure on the ground that the lives of the public were endangered. Watt lived long enough, however, to see the high-pressure steam engine come into general favor, not only in America but even in his own conservative country.

Less sudden, less dramatic, than that of the cotton gin, was the entrance of the steam engine on the American industrial stage, but not less momentous. The actions and reactions of steam in America provide the theme for an Iliad which some American Homer may one day write. They include the epic of the coal in the Pennsylvania hills, the epic of the ore, the epic of the railroad, the epic of the great city; and, in general, the subjugation of a continental wilderness to the service of a vast civilization.

The vital need of better transportation was uppermost in the thoughts of many Americans. It was seen that there could be no national unity in a country so far flung without means of easy intercourse between one group of Americans and another. The highroads of the new country were, for the most part, difficult even for the man on horseback, and worse for those who must travel by coach or post-chaise. Inland from the coast and away from the great rivers there were no roads of any sort; nothing but trails. Highways were essential, not only for the permanent unity of the United States, but to make available the wonderful riches of the inland country, across the Appalachian barrier and around the Great Lakes, into which American pioneers had already made their way.

Those immemorial pathways, the great rivers, were the main avenues of traffic with the interior. So, of course, when men thought of improving transportation, they had in mind chiefly transportation by water; and that is why the earliest efforts of American inventors were applied to the means of improving traffic and travel by water and not by land.

The first men to spend their time in trying to apply steam power to the propulsion of a boat were contemporaries of Benjamin Franklin. Those who worked without Watt’s engine could hardly succeed. One of the earliest of these was William Henry of Pennsylvania. Henry, in 1763, had the idea of applying power to paddle wheels, and constructed a boat, but his boat sank, and no result followed, unless it may be that John Fitch and Robert Fulton, both of whom were visitors at Henry’s house, received some suggestions from him. James Rumsey of Maryland began experiments as early as 1774 and by 1786 had a boat that made four miles an hour against the current of the Potomac.

The most interesting of these early and unsuccessful inventors is John Fitch, who, was a Connecticut clockmaker living in Philadelphia. He was eccentric and irregular in his habits and quite ignorant of the steam engine. But he conceived the idea of a steamboat and set to work to make one. The record of Fitch’s life is something of a tragedy. At the best he was an unhappy man and was always close to poverty. As a young man he had left his family because of unhappy domestic relations with his wife. One may find in the record of his undertakings which he left in the Philadelphia Library, to be opened thirty years after its receipt, these words: "I know of nothing so perplexing and vexatious to a man of feelings as a turbulent Wife and Steamboat building." But in spite of all his difficulties Fitch produced a steamboat, which plied regularly on the Delaware for several years and carried passengers. "We reigned Lord High Admirals of the Delaware; and no other boat in the River could hold its way with us," he wrote. "Thus has been effected by little Johnny Fitch and Harry Voight [one of his associates] one of the greatest and most useful arts that has ever been introduced into the world; and although the world and my country does not thank me for it, yet it gives me heartfelt satisfaction." The "Lord High Admirals of the Delaware," however, did not reign long. The steamboat needed improvement to make it pay; its backers lost patience and faith, and the inventor gave up the fight and retired into the fastnesses of the Kentucky wilderness, where he died.

The next inventor to struggle with the problem of the steamboat, with any approach to success, was John Stevens of Hoboken. His life was cast in a vastly different environment from that of John Fitch. He was a rich man, a man of family and of influence. His father’s house—afterwards his own---at 7 Broadway, facing Bowling Green—was one of the mansions of early New York, and his own summer residence on Castle Point, Hoboken, just across the Hudson, was one of the landmarks of the great river. For many years John Stevens crossed that river; most often in an open boat propelled by sail or by men at the oars. Being naturally of a mechanical turn, he sought to make the crossing easier. To his library were coming the prints that told of James Watt and the steam engine in England, and John Fitch’s boat had interested him.

Robert Fulton’s Clermont, of which we shall speak presently, was undoubtedly the pioneer of practicable steamboats. But the Phoenix, built by John Stevens, followed close on the Clermont. And its engines were built in America, while those of the Clermont had been imported from England. Moreover, in June, 1808, the Phoenix stood to sea, and made the first ocean voyage in the history of steam navigation. Because of a monopoly of the Hudson, which the New York Legislature had granted to Livingston and Fulton, Stevens was compelled to send his ship to the Delaware. Hence the trip out into the waters of the Atlantic, a journey that was not undertaken without trepidation. But, despite the fact that a great storm arose, the Phoenix made the trip in safety; and continued for many years thereafter to ply the Delaware between Philadelphia and Trenton.

Robert Fulton, like many and many another great inventor, from Leonardo da Vinci down to the present time, was also an artist. He was born November 14, 1765, at Little Britain, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, of that stock which is so often miscalled "Scotch-Irish." He was only a child when his father died, leaving behind him a son who seems to have been much more interested in his own ideas than in his schoolbooks. Even in his childhood Robert showed his mechanical ability. There was a firm of noted gunsmiths in Lancaster, in whose shops he made himself at home and became expert in the use of tools. At the age of fourteen he applied his ingenuity to a heavy fishing boat and equipped it with paddle-wheels, which were turned by a crank, thus greatly lightening the labor of moving it.

At the age of seventeen young Fulton moved to Philadelphia and set up as a portrait painter. Some of the miniatures which he painted at this time are said to be very good. He worked hard, made many good friends, including Benjamin Franklin, and succeeded financially. He determined to go to Europe to study—if possible under his fellow Pennsylvanian, Benjamin West, then rising into fame in London. The West and the Fulton families had been intimate, and Fulton hoped that West would take him as a pupil. First buying a farm for his mother with a part of his savings, he sailed for England in 1786, with forty guineas in his pocket. West received him not only as a pupil but as a guest in his house and introduced him to many of his friends. Again Fulton succeeded, and in 1791 two of his portraits were exhibited at the Royal Academy, and the Royal Society of British Artists hung four paintings by him.

Then came the commission which changed the course of Fulton’s life. His work had attracted the notice of Viscount Courtenay, later Earl of Devon, and he was invited to Devonshire to paint that nobleman’s portrait. Here he met Francis, third Duke of Bridgewater, the father of the English canal system, and his hardly less famous engineer, James Brindley, and also Earl Stanhope, a restless, inquiring spirit. Fulton the mechanic presently began to dominate Fulton the artist. He studied canals, invented a means of sawing marble in the quarries, improved the wheel for spinning flax, invented a machine for making rope, and a method of raising canal boats by inclined planes instead of locks. What money he made from these inventions we do not know, but somewhat later (1796) he speaks hopefully of an improvement in tanning. This same year he published a pamphlet entitled "A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation", copies of which were sent to Napoleon and President Washington.

Fulton went to France in 1797. To earn money he painted several portraits and a panorama of the Burning of Moscow. This panorama, covering the walls of a circular hall built especially for it, became very popular, and Fulton painted another. In Paris he formed a warm friendship with that singular American, Joel Barlow, soldier, poet, speculator, and diplomatist, and his wife, and for seven years lived in their house.

The long and complicated story of Fulton’s sudden interest in torpedoes and submarine boats, his dealings with the Directory and Napoleon and with the British Admiralty does not belong here. His experiments and his negotiations with the two Governments occupied the greater part of his time for the years between 1797 and 1806. His expressed purpose was to make an engine of war so terrible that war would automatically be abolished. The world, however, was not ready for diving boats and torpedoes, nor yet for the end of war, and his efforts had no tangible results.*

* The submarine was the invention of David Bushnell, a Connecticut Yankee, whose "American Turtle" blew up at least one British vessel in the War of Independence and created much consternation among the King’s ships in American waters.

During all the years after 1793, at least, and perhaps earlier, the idea of the steamboat had seldom been out of his mind, but lack of funds and the greater urgency, as he thought, of the submarine prevented him from working seriously upon it. In 1801, however, Robert R. Livingston came to France as American Minister. Livingston had already made some unsuccessful experiments with the steamboat in the United States, and, in 1798, had received the monopoly of steam navigation on the waters of New York for twenty years, provided that he produced a vessel within twelve months able to steam four miles an hour. This grant had, of course, been forfeited, but might be renewed, Livingston thought.

Fulton and Livingston met, probably at Barlow’s house, and, in 1802, drew up an agreement to construct a steamboat to ply between New York and Albany. Livingston agreed to advance five hundred dollars for experimentation in Europe. In this same year Fulton built a model and tested different means of propulsion, giving "the preference to a wheel on each side of the model."* The boat was built on the Seine, but proved too frail for the borrowed engine. A second boat was tried in August, 1803, and moved, though at a disappointingly slow rate of speed.

* Fulton to Barlow, quoted in Sutcliffe, "Robert Fulton and the Clermont", p. 124.

Just at this time Fulton wrote ordering an engine from Boulton and Watt to be transported to America. The order was at first refused, as it was then the shortsighted policy of the British Government to maintain a monopoly of mechanical contrivances. Permission to export was given the next year, however, and the engine was shipped in 1805. It lay for some time in the New York Customs House. Meanwhile Fulton had studied the Watt engine on Symington’s steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas, on the Forth and Clyde Canal, and Livingston had been granted a renewal of his monopoly of the waters of New York.

Fulton arrived at New York in 1806 and began the construction of the Clermont, so named after Livingston’s estate on the Hudson. The building was done on the East River. The boat excited the jeers of passersby, who called it "Fulton’s Folly." On Monday, August 17, 1807, the memorable first voyage was begun. Carrying a party of invited guests, the Clermont steamed off at one o’clock. Past the towns and villages along the Hudson, the boat moved steadily, black smoke rolling from her stack. Pine wood was the fuel. During the night, the sparks pouring from her funnel, the clanking of her machinery, and the splashing of the paddles frightened the animals in the woods and the occupants of the scattered houses along the banks. At one o’clock Tuesday the boat arrived at Clermont, 110 miles from New York. After spending the night at Clermont, the voyage was resumed on Wednesday. Albany, forty miles away, was reached in eight hours, making a record of 150 miles in thirty-two hours. Returning to New York, the distance was covered in thirty hours. The steamboat was a success.

The boat was then laid up for two weeks while the cabins were boarded in, a roof built over the engine, and coverings placed over the paddle-wheels to catch the spray—all under Fulton’s eye. Then the Clermont began regular trips to Albany, carrying sometimes a hundred passengers, making the round trip every four days, and continued until floating ice marked the end of navigation for the winter.

Why had Fulton succeeded where others had failed? There was nothing new in his boat. Every essential feature of the Clermont had been anticipated by one or other of the numerous experimenters before him. The answer seems to be that he was a better engineer than any of them. He had calculated proportions, and his hull and his engine were in relation. Then too, he had one of Watt’s engines, undoubtedly the best at the time, and the unwavering support of Robert Livingston.

Fulton’s restless mind was never still, but he did not turn capriciously from one idea to another. Though never satisfied, his new ideas were tested scientifically and the results carefully written down. Some of his notebooks read almost like geometrical demonstrations; and his drawings and plans were beautifully executed. Before his death in 1815 he had constructed or planned sixteen or seventeen boats, including boats for the Hudson, Potomac, and Mississippi rivers, for the Neva in Russia, and a steam vessel of war for the United States. He was a member of the commission on the Erie Canal, though he did not live to see that enterprise begun.

The mighty influence of the steamboat in the development of inland America is told elsewhere in this Series.* The steamboat has long since grown to greatness, but it is well to remember that the true ancestor of the magnificent leviathan of our own day is the Clermont of Robert Fulton.

* Archer B. Hulbert, "The Paths of Inland Commerce".

The world today is on the eve of another great development in transportation, quite as revolutionary as any that have preceded. How soon will it take place? How long before Kipling’s vision in "The Night Mail" becomes a full reality? How long before the air craft comes to play a great role in the world’s transportation? We cannot tell. But, after looking at the nearest parallel in the facts of history, each of us may make his own guess. The airship appears now to be much farther advanced than the steamboat was for many years after Robert Fulton died. Already we have seen men ride the wind above the sea from the New World to the Old. Already United States mails are regularly carried through the air from the Atlantic to the Golden Gate. It was twelve years after the birth of Fulton’s Clermont, and four years after the inventor’s death, before any vessel tried to cross the Atlantic under steam. This was in 1819, when the sailing packet Savannah, equipped with a ninety horsepower horizontal engine and paddlewheels, crossed from Savannah to Liverpool in twenty-five days, during eighteen of which she used steam power. The following year, however, the engine was taken out of the craft. And it was not until 1833 that a real steamship crossed the Atlantic. This time it was the Royal William, which made a successful passage from Quebec to London. Four years more passed before the Great Western was launched at Bristol, the first steamship to be especially designed for transatlantic service, and the era of great steam liners began.

If steam could be made to drive a boat on the water, why not a wagon on the land?

History, seeking origins, often has difficulty when it attempts to discover the precise origin of an idea. "It frequently happens," said Oliver Evans, "that two persons, reasoning right on a mechanical subject, think alike and invent the same thing without any communication with each other."* It is certain, however, that one of the first, if not the first, protagonist of the locomotive in America was the same Oliver Evans, a truly great inventor for whom the world was not quite ready. The world has forgotten him. But he was the first engine builder in America, and one of the best of his day. He gave to his countrymen the high-pressure steam engine and new machinery for manufacturing flour that was not superseded for a hundred years.

* Coleman Sellers, "Oliver Evans and His Inventions," "Journal of the Franklin Institute", July, 1886: vol. CXXII, p. 16.

"Evans was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to a wheelwright. He was a thoughtful, studious boy, who devoured eagerly the few books to which he had access, even by the light of a fire of shavings, when denied a candle by his parsimonious master. He says that in 1779, when only seventeen years old, he began to contrive some method of propelling land carriages by other means than animal power; and that he thought of a variety of devices, such as using the force of the wind and treadles worked by men; but as they were evidently inadequate, was about to give up the problem as unsolvable for want of a suitable source of power, when he heard that some neighboring blacksmith’s boys had stopped up the touch-hole of a gun barrel, put in some water, rammed down a tight wad, and, putting the breech into the smith’s fire, the gun had discharged itself with a report like that of gunpowder. This immediately suggested to his fertile mind a new source of power, and he labored long to apply it, but without success, until there fell into his hands a book describing the old atmospheric steam engine of Newcomen, and he was at once struck with the fact that steam was only used to produce a vacuum while to him it seemed clear that the elastic power of the steam if applied directly to moving the piston, would be far more efficient. He soon satisfied himself that he could make steam wagons, but could convince no one else of this possibility."*

* Coleman Sellers, "Oliver Evans and His Inventions," "Journal of the Franklin Institute", July, 1886: vol. CXXII, p. 3.

Evans was then living in Delaware, where he was born, and where he later worked out his inventions in flour-milling machinery and invented and put into service the high-pressure steam engine. He appears to have moved to Philadelphia about 1790, the year of Franklin’s death and of the Federal Patent Act; and, as we have seen, the third patent issued by the Government at Philadelphia was granted to him. About this time he became absorbed in the hard work of writing a book, the "Millwright and Miller’s Guide", which he published in 1795, but at a heavy sacrifice to himself in time and money. A few years later he had an established engine works in Philadelphia and was making steam engines of his own type that performed their work satisfactorily.

The Oruktor Amphibolos, or Amphibious Digger, which came out of his shop in 1804, was a steamdriven machine made to the order of the Philadelphia Board of Health for dredging and cleaning the docks of the city. It was designed, as its name suggests, for service either in water or on shore. It propelled itself across the city to the river front, puffing and throwing off clouds of steam and making quite a sensation on the streets.

Evans had never forgotten his dream of the "steam wagon." His Oruktor had no sooner begun puffing than he offered to make for the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Company steamdriven carriages to take the place of their six-horse Conestoga wagons, promising to treble their profits. But the directors of the road were conservative men and his arguments fell on deaf ears.

In the same year Evans petitioned Congress for an extension of the patent on his flour-milling machinery, which was about to expire. He had derived little profit from this important invention, as the new machinery made its way very slowly, but every year more and more millers were using it and Evans received royalties from them. He felt sure that Congress would renew his patent, and, with great expectations for the future, he announced a new book in preparation by himself to be called "The Young Engineer’s Guide". It was to give the most thorough treatment to the subject of the steam engine, with a profusion of drawings to illustrate the text. But Evans reckoned without the millers who were opposing his petition. Though they were profiting by his invention, they were unwilling to pay him anything, and they succeeded in having his bill in Congress defeated. It was a hard blow for the struggling author and inventor. His income cut off, he was obliged to reduce the scale of his book "and to omit many of the illustrations he had promised." He wrote the sad story into the name of the book. It came out under the title of "The Abortion of the Young Engineer’s Guide".

Four years later, when Congress restored and extended his patent, Evans felt that better days were ahead, but, as said already, he was too far ahead of his time to be understood and appreciated. Incredulity, prejudice, and opposition were his portion as long as he lived. Nevertheless, he went on building good engines and had the satisfaction of seeing them in extensive use. His life came to an end as the result of what to him was the greatest possible tragedy. He was visiting New York City in 1819, when news came to him of the destruction by an incendiary of his beloved shops in Philadelphia. The shock was greater than he could bear. A stroke of apoplexy followed, from which he died.

The following prophecy, written by Oliver Evans and published in 1812, seventeen years before the practical use of the locomotive began, tells us something of the vision of this early American inventor:

"The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines from one city to another almost as fast as birds fly—fifteen to twenty miles an hour. Passing through the air with such velocity—changing the scenes in such rapid succession—will be the most exhilarating, delightful exercise. A carriage will set out from Washington in the morning, and the passengers will breakfast at Baltimore, dine in Philadelphia, and sup at New York the same day.

"To accomplish this, two sets of railways will be laid so nearly level as not in any place to deviate more than two degrees from a horizontal line, made of wood or iron, on smooth paths of broken stone or gravel, with a rail to guide the carriages so that they may pass each other in different directions and travel by night as well as by day; and the passengers will sleep in these stages as comfortably as they do now in steam stage-boats."*

*Cited by Coleman Sellers, Ibid., p. 13.

Another early advocate of steam carriages and railways was John Stevens, the rich inventor of Hoboken, who figures in the story of the steamboat. In February, 1812, Stevens addressed to the commissioners appointed by the State of New York to explore a route for the Erie Canal an elaborate memoir calculated to prove that railways would be much more in the public interest than the proposed canal. He wrote at the same time to Robert R. Livingston (who, as well as Robert Fulton, his partner in the steamboat, was one of the commissioners) requesting his influence in favor of railways. Livingston, having committed himself to the steamboat and holding a monopoly of navigation on the waters of New York State, could hardly be expected to give a willing ear to a rival scheme, and no one then seems to have dreamed that both canal and railway would ultimately be needed. Livingston, however, was an enlightened statesman, one of the ablest men of his day. He had played a prominent part in the affairs of the Revolution and in the ratification of the Constitution; had known Franklin and Washington and had negotiated with Napoleon the Louisiana Purchase. His reply to Stevens is a good statement of the objections to the railway, as seen at the time, and of the public attitude towards it.

Robert R. Livingston to John Stevens

"Albany, 11th March, 1812.

"I did not, till yesterday, receive yours of the 5th of February; where it has loitered on the road I am at a loss to say. I had before read your very ingenious propositions as to the rail-way communication. I fear, however, on mature reflection, that they will be liable to serious objections, and ultimately more expensive than a canal. They must be double, so as to prevent the danger of two such heavy bodies meeting. The walls on which they are placed must at least be four feet below the surface, and three above, and must be clamped with iron, and even then, would hardly sustain so heavy a weight as you propose moving at the rate of four miles an hour on wheels. As to wood, it would not last a week; they must be covered with iron, and that too very thick and strong. The means of stopping these heavy carriages without a great shock, and of preventing them from running upon each other (for there would be many on the road at once) would be very difficult. In case of accidental stops, or the necessary stops to take wood and water &c many accidents would happen. The carriage of condensed water would be very troublesome. Upon the whole, I fear the expense would be much greater than that of canals, without being so convenient."*

* John Stevens, "Documents Tending to Prove the Superior Advantages of Rail-Ways and Steam-Carriages over Canal Navigation" (1819). Reprinted in "The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries", Extra Number 54 (1917).

Stevens, of course, could not convince the commissioners. "The Communication from John Stevens, Esq.," was referred to a committee, who reported in March: "That they have considered the said communication with the attention due to a gentleman whose scientific researches and knowledge of mechanical powers entitle his opinions to great respect, and are sorry not to concur in them."

Stevens, however, kept up the fight. He published all the correspondence, hoping to get aid from Congress for his design, and spread his propaganda far and wide. But the War of 1812 soon absorbed the attention of the country. Then came the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, and the extension into the Northwest of the great Cumberland Road. From St. Louis steamboats churned their way up the Missouri, connecting with the Santa Fe Trail to the Southwest and the Oregon Trail to the far Northwest. Horses, mules, and oxen carried the overland travelers, and none yet dreamed of being carried on the land by steam.

Back East, however, and across the sea in England, there were a few dreamers. Railways of wooden rails, sometimes covered with iron, on which wagons were drawn by horses, were common in Great Britain; some were in use very early in America. And on these railways, or tramways, men were now experimenting with steam, trying to harness it to do the work of horses. In England, Trevithick, Blenkinsop, Ericsson, Stephenson, and others; in America, John Stevens, now an old man but persistent in his plans as ever and with able sons to help him, had erected a circular railway at Hoboken as early as 1826, on which he ran a locomotive at the rate of twelve miles an hour. Then in 1828 Horatio Allen, of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, went over to England and brought back with him the Stourbridge Lion. This locomotive, though it was not a success in practice, appears to have been the first to turn a wheel on a regular railway within the United States. It was a seven days’ wonder in New York when it arrived in May, 1829. Then Allen shipped it to Honesdale, Pennsylvania, where the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company had a tramway to bring down coal from the mountains to the terminal of the canal. On the crude wooden rails of this tramway Allen placed the Stourbridge Lion and ran it successfully at the rate of ten miles an hour. But in actual service the Stourbridge Lion failed and was soon dismantled.

Pass now to Rainhill, England, and witness the birth of the modern locomotive, after all these years of labor. In the same year of 1829, on the morning of the 6th of October, a great crowd had assembled to see an extraordinary race—a race, in fact, without any parallel or precedent whatsoever. There were four entries but one dropped out, leaving three: The Novelty, John Braithwaite and John Ericsson; The Sanspareil, Timothy Hackworth; The Rocket, George and Robert Stephenson. These were not horses; they were locomotives. The directors of the London and Manchester Railway had offered a prize of five hundred pounds for the best locomotive, and here they were to try the issue.

The contest resulted in the triumph of Stephenson’s Rocket. The others fell early out of the race. The Rocket alone met all the requirements and won the prize. So it happened that George Stephenson came into fame and has ever since lived in popular memory as the father of the locomotive. There was nothing new in his Rocket, except his own workmanship. Like Robert Fulton, he appears to have succeeded where others failed because he was a sounder engineer, or a better combiner of sound principles into a working, whole, than any of his rivals.

Across the Atlantic came the news of Stephenson’s remarkable success. And by this time railroads were beginning in various parts of the United States: the Mohawk and Hudson, from Albany to Schenectady; the Baltimore and Ohio; the Charleston and Hamburg in South Carolina; the Camden and Amboy, across New Jersey. Horses, mules, and even sails, furnished the power for these early railroads. It can be imagined with what interest the owners of these roads heard that at last a practicable locomotive was running in England.

This news stimulated the directors of the Baltimore and Ohio to try the locomotive. They had not far to go for an experiment, for Peter Cooper, proprietor of the Canton Iron Works in Baltimore, had already designed a small locomotive, the Tom Thumb. This was placed on trial in August, 1830, and is supposed to have been the first American-built locomotive to do work on rails, though nearly coincident with it was the Best Friend of Charleston, built by the West Point Foundry, New York, for the Charleston and Hamburg Railroad. It is often difficult, as we have seen, to say which of two or several things was first. It appears as though the little Tom Thumb was the first engine built in America, which actually pulled weight on a regular railway, while the much larger Best Friend was the first to haul cars in regular daily service.

The West Point Foundry followed its first success with the West Point, which also went into service on the Charleston and Hamburg Railroad, and then built for the newly finished Mohawk and Hudson (the first link in the New York Central Lines) the historic De Witt Clinton. This primitive locomotive and the cars it drew may be seen today in the Grand Central Station in New York.

Meanwhile, the Stevens brothers, sons of John Stevens, were engaged in the construction of the Camden and Amboy Railroad. The first locomotive to operate on this road was built in England by George Stephenson. This was the John Bull, which arrived in the summer of 1831 and at once went to work. The John Bull was a complete success and had a distinguished career. Sixty-two years old, in 1893, it went to Chicago, to the Columbian Exposition, under its own steam. The John Bull occupies a place today in the National Museum at Washington.

With the locomotive definitely accepted, men began to turn their minds towards its improvement and development, and locomotive building soon became a leading industry in America. At first the British types and patterns were followed, but it was not long before American designers began to depart from the British models and to evolve a distinctively American type. In the development of this type great names have been written into the industrial history of America, among which the name of Matthias Baldwin of Philadelphia probably ranks first. But there have been hundreds of great workers in this field. From Stephenson’s Rocket and the little Tom Thumb of Peter Cooper, to the powerful "Mallets" of today, is a long distance—not spanned in ninety years save by the genius and restless toil of countless brains and hands.

If the locomotive could not remain as it was left by Stephenson and Cooper, neither could the stationary steam engine remain as it was left by James Watt and Oliver Evans. Demands increasing and again increasing, year after year, forced the steam engine to grow in order to meet its responsibilities. There were men living in Philadelphia in 1876, who had known Oliver Evans personally; at least one old man at the Centennial Exhibition had himself seen the Oruktor Amphibolos and recalled the consternation it had caused on the streets of the city in 1804. It seemed a far cry back to the Oruktor from the great and beautiful engine, designed by George Henry Corliss, which was then moving all the vast machinery of the Centennial Exhibition. But since then achievements in steam have dwarfed even the great work of Corliss. And to do a kind of herculean task that was hardly dreamed of in 1876 another type of engine has made its entrance: the steam turbine, which sends its awful energy, transformed into electric current, to light a million lamps or to turn ten thousand wheels on distant streets and highways.


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Chicago: Holland Thompson, "Chapter III. Steam in Captivity," Age of Invention : A Chronicle of Mechanical Conquest, ed. Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907 in Age of Invention : A Chronicle of Mechanical Conquest Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2023,

MLA: Thompson, Holland. "Chapter III. Steam in Captivity." Age of Invention : A Chronicle of Mechanical Conquest, edited by Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907, in Age of Invention : A Chronicle of Mechanical Conquest, Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Thompson, H, 'Chapter III. Steam in Captivity' in Age of Invention : A Chronicle of Mechanical Conquest, ed. . cited in , Age of Invention : A Chronicle of Mechanical Conquest. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2023, from