Richard Trevithick – 200 Years of Steam Trains

by Bob Barton (by courtesy of

Statue of Richard Trevithick, Camborne, Cornwall

An invention that changed the world is 200 years old in 2004: Britain is celebrating the bicentenary of the steam railway locomotive. But it is not an engineering giant such as James Watt or George Stephenson being fêted.

The man who first put steam engines on rails was a tall, strong Cornishman described by his schoolmaster as obstinate and inattentive. Richard Trevithick (1771-1833), who learnt his craft in Cornish tin mines, built his Penydarren tram road engine for a line in South Wales whose primitive wagons were pulled, slowly and laboriously, by horses.

On February 21, 1804, Trevithicks pioneering engine hauled 10 tons of iron and 70 men nearly ten miles from Penydarren, at a speed of five miles-per-hour. He was 20 years ahead of his time–Stephensons Rocket was not even on the drawing board–but Trevithicks engines were seen as little more than a novelty. He went on to engineer at mines in South America before dying penniless aged 62. But his idea was developed by others and, by 1845, a spiders web of 2,440 miles of railway were open and 30 million passengers were being carried in Britain alone.

With the launch in January 2004 of a new £2 coin bearing both his name and his ingenious invention, Trevithick has at last received the public recognition he deserves.

Penydarren tram road engine

Further information on Richard Trevithick and his steam engine:

On you can watch a short film on this topic. If you want to read along while watching the film, click the S button for subtitles. (This way it might be easier for you to understand what is being said.)

Questions on the text

  • What do we find out about Trevithick's schoolmaster?

  • Which statement is correct?

  • Trevithick died .