Richard Trevithick – of Cornwall

You may not have heard of him before, but we have a lot to thank Cornish-born Richard Trevithick for when it comes to steam engines, steam boilers, and central heating systems. He even has his own commemorative day celebrated in April each year.

The Cornish boiler

Toward the end of his career Trevithick expanded his horizons, working on many types of engineering projects. The most notable of these was perhaps the Cornish boiler, designed in 1812, which used horizontal cylindrical boilers in a design that significantly improved efficiency.

He developed new designs, including ship containers, a steamboat propeller, and a central heating system for homes. His work contributed towards many of the products we use today, including the heating systems installed by the plumbers Plymouth company. Despite this, he received very little recognition during his lifetime and died penniless in 1833.

A natural engineer

Born in 1771 in the parish of Illogan, in the mining heart of Cornwall, Richard Trevithick was immersed in the world of mining and engineering from his early years. His father was a mine “captain” and his maternal grandfather was also a miner, so he spent a lot of time around mining equipment. 

At school he excelled at sport (his athletic 6ft 2in build earned him the nickname ‘The Cornish Giant’) and had an unconventional talent for mathematics. This later turned into an aptitude for engineering when he went to work at East Stray Park mine, becoming a consultant by age 19.

Trevithick’s early work focused on the steam engines used to pump water out of mines. The only models in use at the time were inefficient low-pressure steam engines, and as these were very expensive to purchase and run, Trevithick started experimenting with new designs using high-pressure steam systems.

Puffing Devil

Trevithick’s first full-size steam road locomotive was constructed in 1801 and named ‘The Puffing Devil’. He took it on its first test run on Christmas Eve of that year around Camborne Town, making it the world’s first demonstration of steam-powered transport.

The engine met an unfortunate end when it broke down and was left, with the fire still burning, while the engineers went to lunch. After all the water had boiled off, the engine blew up and the machine was destroyed, but Trevithick regarded this as only a minor setback.

In 1802 Richard Trevithick patented his design for the high-pressure steam engine. He went on to develop a series of steam-powered engines including the London Steam Carriage and Pen-y-Daren railway locomotive, although he suffered some setbacks due to the high running costs and impractical weight of the engines.

steam boilers

The “Catch Me Who Can”

Another world first

Returning to Cornwall, in 1808 Trevithick came up with what we would now call a publicity stunt. He created a new railway locomotive, the “Catch Me Who Can”, and ran it around a circular track in Euston Square to promote his engineering skills and the merits of rail travel. He charged passengers 1 shilling (5p) to take a ride on it, making it the first fare-paying railway in the world.

However, he failed to rouse much interest and this became the last railway locomotive he designed. He suffered several years of financial difficulties, being declared bankrupt in 1811.