For well over a hundred years the railway trains, with passenger carriages running on steel rails and pulled by large locomotives based initially on steam engines, then on diesel engines and nowadays in much of the world on electric motors, have been filled with romance – opening up the world to travel at moderate cost, and allowing a view of the countryside in a relatively leisurely fashion during the journey. Much is owed to the early inventors.

The first steam-driven vehicle appears to have been built by a French military engineer called Nicolas Cugnot (1725–1804) His self propelled three-wheeled vehicle, was developed primarily for towing artillery and was capable of carrying four people. On 23rd October 1769, in the Paris arsenal, Cugnot demonstrated his first steam engine before distinguished government officials. The machine attained an impressive speed of 2mph and ran for 15 minutes. His second engine had its demonstration in the Paris streets before the French public. But there was a minor incident involving the engine and an argument with a brick wall, which resulted in an upside down lump of quality scrap iron. Cugnot was discredited and lack of support prevented his further engine developments. A replica engine is now preserved in the Paris Museum of Technology.

It is probable that most people would point to Richard Trevithick (1771 – 1833) as the most significant early contributor to steam propulsion. He was a remarkable man, born at Illogan, in Cornwall, about a mile from the Dalcoath Mine. He spent his school years at Camborne School where he excelled at sport, while his academic work, apart from an arithmetic aptitude, at this time was not of any great note. His early years were notable for his sporting achievements. He grew to a height of six feet two inches (this was a considerable height for that time) and was renowned for his prowess at Cornish wrestling. He was also known to have been able to toss a sledge hammer over the tops of the engine houses and to have been able to swing by his thumbs from a beam with a half hundredweight hanging from his thumbs. His nickname of the time was ´The Cornish Giant´.

His father was Engineer at the Wheel Treasury Mine, and Richard went to work for him there. It was at this time that he revealed a talent for engineering. By 1792 he was promoted to Chief Engineer at Tincroft, later moving to the Ding Dong Mine in 1796. In his position as engineer he made numerous improvements to the existing steam engine equipment, which was basically a Newcomen design. The main thrust of his experiments in this sphere was to improve the efficiency of the steam engine, thereby cutting down on fuel consumption and increasing output. He did this by increasing the operating pressure. James Watt, who had been largely responsible for the development of the then-current steam engines, had always been aware of the potential dangers of high-pressure steam, and regarded this new development as very risky – he is reported as having said that Trevithick ´deserved to be hung´. However, Trevithick’s early stationery engines were highly successful and they became known as ´Puffers´ on account of the noise they made.

.Following on from this success, Trevithick began to formulate ideas for building a steam engine that could provide power for its own locomotion and by 1801 he had designed and built the world’s first steam-propelled road locomotive to carry passengers. It was named ´Captain Dick´s Puffer´ and its first run took place in Camborn on Christmas Eve. What exactly happened that evening is a matter of some debate ! The Trevithick Society, who built the replica and called it "Puffing Devil", believe the run was simply up Camborne Fore Street and the short trip ended when control was lost of the steering and it crashed.
Many stories exist of the engine running from Rosewarne up the hill to Beacon with many of them suggesting that the engine's boiler blew up while parked outside the hostelry where Trevithick and friends had retired to celebrate. Supposedly because Trevithick had omitted to keep the boiler topped up with water and it had boiled dry!
In 2001 the Trevithick Society decided to duplicate the whole thing – they built the replica vehicle, and (after some minor bureaucratic problems) drove it up the original route as indeed they still do each year at the Camborne Trevithick Day steam festival.

Trevithick’s life was not exactly successful. He developed other locomotives, and in 1804 demonstrated the operation of a smooth-wheeled vehicle on a smooth steel track – at the time, many good engineers thought this was impossible. In 1803 he took a new machine to London, called the London Steam Carriage; this operated reasonably well, but had a crash. In 1808 he brought another new machine, called the Catch-Me-Who-Can, to London where he built a circular track in Euston Square, and charged people a shilling to ride his ‘Steam Circus’. However a shilling was a lot of money in those days and the venture was not successful.

Richard had business disaster after disaster, and he died in extreme poverty at the Bull Inn, Dartford, on 22nd April, 1833. As he left no money for his burial, he faced the prospect of a pauper's funeral. However, when a group of local factory workers heard the news, they raised enough money to provide a decent funeral and he was buried in Dartford churchyard, in an unmarked grave.


Richard Trevithick's memorial outside Camborne Library

No study of Richard Trevithick would be complete without a mention of the Trevithic Society

Much of this was taken from an article the MediaDrome website which is no longer there.