Railroads vastly lowered the cost of moving people and goods over land.

Richard Trevithick invented the locomotive engine. However, he never quite created a fully functioning railroad: Trevithick’s locomotive was a literal circus act, pulling children around a track at a circus.

His core innovation was the idea of a high-pressure steam engine. Prior steam engines, invented by James Watt of Boulton & Watt, used atmospheric pressure. That is, the weight of air would compress the piston and steam would expand it. Trevithick’s high-pressure engine, on the other hand, worked like a modern engine, using the fuel to power the pistons to create thrust.

An early Trevithick engine blew up killing four men. An enraged Watt suggested that Trevithick should be hanged though it wasn’t clear if his anger was jealousy, at the high-pressure engine, fear of engines being shunned, or genuine moral outrage.

Furthermore, Trevithick lived nearby (some say he was neighbors with) Watt engineer James Murdoch. It is entirely possible that Murdch helped the illiterate Trevithick build his engine. Murdoch would have been prevented from doing so due to Watt’s distaste for high-pressure engines.

Whatever the reasons, Trevithick died poor, buried in an anonymous paupers grave despite the impact of his innovation to the world.

George Stephenson is generally created as the innovator of the first real railroad. To this day, standard gauge railroad tracks are referred to as “Stephenson gauge track.” Interestingly, Stephenson worked briefly with Trevithick in South America and purchase Trevithick, who was poor, a ticket back to England.

George Stephenson met and arguably built on Trevithick’s work but also engineered much of his own. The first real locomotive engine, called the Blucher, was capable of carrying 30 tons of coal at 40 miles an hour, an unheard of task at the time. Besides building engines, Stephenson also went on to build the infrastructure for them, including countless bridges still standing today.

His son, Robert, took over the business and became enormously wealthy, the first railroad barons. Father and son are buried in Holy Trinity Church, alongside England’s most influential people in history.

Locomotive (High-Pressure Steam Engine)

The high-pressure steam engine was invented about the same time by Richard Trevithick in the UK and Oliver Evans in the US. Neither man knew about the other.

Richard Trevithick

Trevithick, a mining engineer, built a high-pressure steam-powered car, the “Puffing Devil,” in 1801, taking it for a ride around town, picking up friends. He left it at a pub where they went to celebrate his innovation. While drinking they failed to notice the fire from the steam boiler and the car burnt down.

James Watt, the inventor of the condensing (low pressure) steam engine, believed Trevithick’s high-pressure steam engines dangerous. After one of Trevithick’s early high-pressure steam engines, used as a pump, exploded and killed two people Watt urged Trevithick’s prosecution for murder.  There are rumors that Trevithick’s and Watt’s lead engineer Richard Murdoch were neighbors and may have secretly collaborated building the engine.

Starting in 1802, Trevithick created several high-pressure locomotive steam engines that ran on tracks. These were the earliest trains but none realized commercial success.

Trevithick eventually moved to South America to work on trains for mines where he met railroad baron George Stephenson, who gave him money to return to the UK.

Reproduction of Trevithick’s Locomotive

Historians disagree whether Trevithick died in poverty or merely with little money. He did not meaningfully profit from his engines.

Oliver Evans

American Oliver Evans (automated mills, refrigeration) simultaneously worked on high-pressure steam engines in the US. He built an amphibious vehicle with his high-pressure engine, that “walked” from his shop to the docks, and into the water. It worked as a dredger. Like Trevithick, his high-pressure engines initially failed to gain commercial interest. Later in life, after working through issues with his mill patents, Evans built a steam engine business with his sons. They produced about 100 high-pressure steam engines.