Inventor. Richard Trevithick, a 19th century British engineer, received notoriety for his inventions involving steam under pressure. In 1803 he constructed the world’s first high-pressure steam railway locomotive. After some modifications in 1805, he used his high-pressure engine to drive an iron-rolling mill and to propelling a barge with the aid of paddle wheels. Among his other inventions was his first steam carriage, which he drove up a hill in Camborne, Cornwall, on Christmas Eve of 1801. In March of the next year, his cousin received a patent on Richard Trevithick’s high-pressure steam engine. Later, he drove the carriage through the streets of London. A few years before the carriage, he constructed 30 compacted steam engines, which were small enough to be transported with a horse and wagon. These small engines were called ““puffer whims.” On February 21, 1804, his engine proved its worth after hauling a load of 10 tons of iron and 70 men along 10 miles. Born the only son in six children, his father was a tin-mine manager. As a village youth in a mining district of rural Cornwall, his early education was poor as his teacher considered him to have a behavioral problem calling him “disobedient, slow, and obstinate,” and his father called him lazy, thus as an adult, he could barely read or write. He grew to be 6’2’’ tall and an accomplished wrestler and sportsman. Being good with mathematics, he had a talent for solving problems that amazed skilled, educated engineers. He obtained his first engineering position in 1790 at age nineteen. He married, Jane Harvey, the daughter in a prominent engineering family. The couple had two daughters and three sons. Earlier steam engines were not practical as in the Cornwall tin mines there was no inexpensive source of obtaining coal for heat or any other means of energy. In the spring of 1810, he nearly died with typhoid fever. A quick-tempered man with limited education and a poor business sense, his business was bankrupted by 1811. He did resolve most of his business debt with his own personal funds. In 1816 he sailed to South America to fill an order for silver mines located there. In 1827 he returned to England, penniless and surprised that other engineers had profited from his invention while he was abroad. Several decades earlier, James Watt had used his invention of low-pressure steam for locomotive with much success, but Trevithick took Watt’s invention, along with Thomas Newcomen’s 1712 engine, much further with his high-pressure steam. After saying that Trevithick “deserved hanging for bringing into use the high-pressure engine,” Watt was upset as men had died trying to work with high-pressure steam engines. Watt attempted to sue him but Watt’s patents were outdated. After being denied a governmental pension, he died of pneumonia in poverty and buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, but more recently, a marker honoring him was placed near his grave site.
Bio by: Linda Davis