This is a story of pioneering engineering minds who pushed new locomotive technology to its limits to solve the problem of transport in an accelerating world.
It's a tale of innovation, ingenuity and personal rivalry which led to a world-changing transport revolution. Read on to discover who these early pioneers were, and why some have been celebrated while others have faded into obscurity.
Find out how locomotive power came to dominate the railways—and why an unremarkable stretch of countryside near Liverpool became the launchpad for revolutionary engineering ideas.
Imagine Britain on the eve of the Industrial Revolution—industry is exploding as the factory system whirs into action, mineral mines power thundering new technologies and thousands of people flock to cities for the first time. The country is on the cusp of changes that will shape the world we know today—but long-distance freight is still carried by road or canal and there is no way faster than horseback to move people between the new urban centres. Something has to change.
How did engineers and industrialists set about finding a solution? What were their ideas, and did they succeed? And why is Rocket the name we remember today?
Was Rocket the first steam locomotive?
Despite Rocket's international fame, engineer Richard Trevithick had completed the first successful steam-powered locomotive to haul a load on rails in 1804—long before the Stephensons' engine. The product of a 500-guinea bet between South Wales ironmasters Samuel Homfray and Richard Crawshay, it consisted of a high-pressure boiler mounted on wheels, with pistons connected to gears that drove the wheels.
The bet was for the locomotive to haul ten tons of iron along the Merthyr Tydfil tramroad from Penydarren to Abercynon—nearly ten miles. In the event, the locomotive hauled 11 tons of iron and 70 men at a speed of 2.4 mph. Although too heavy for regular use on the tramroad’s brittle cast iron rails, this was a vital step towards long-distance rail transport as we know it today.
Between then and Rocket's success in 1829 engineers trialled various other locomotives, including George Stephenson's Blücher and Puffing Billy, built by William Hedley, Jonathan Forster and Timothy Hackworth for Wylam colliery.
What were the Rainhill trials?
By the 1820s the Industrial Revolution was thundering ahead, and the mills of Manchester—Cottonopolis—were churning out so much cotton that faster, more efficient transport of goods to the coast for export was urgently needed. The Liverpool & Manchester Railway (L&MR) was created to service this need, but by 1829 the problem of railway locomotion—the precise method of moving goods and passengers—had come to a head.
It was already agreed that a self-propelled steam locomotive (rather than static winding engines, for example) would be used on the line, but there were an abundance of designs available. To establish the best design, the L&MR's directors decided to hold performance trials to discover "the most improved locomotive engine" for the railway, with a prize of £500.
Conducted over nine days in October 1829 on a purpose-built line near Rainhill, outside Liverpool, the trials ignited public fascination with locomotive power. The first day was attended by over 10,000 spectators and large crowds continued to watch the engines' progress each day as they competed for engineering prestige—and the handsome prize money.
What was the challenge?
The task itself was simple: 10 return trips along 1.5 miles of track, simulating the 30-mile run between Liverpool and Manchester. Applicants were sent a set of design specifications—but there was little information about how the locomotives would be tested for acceptance. As the trials began, the judges realised this was a problem, and issued a fresh set of 'stipulations and conditions' which laid down the procedure in some detail.
Before each day's trial the judges (engineers John Rastrick and Nicholas Wood and industrialist John Kennedy) carefully weighed the locomotive and the load it was to haul and recorded the amount of fuel and water taken on. They then timed the train over each of 10 runs along the 1.5-mile track. The locomotives refuelled, and then completed 10 more return trips. When the trips had been completed, the amount of fuel and water used and the average speed achieved were calculated.
The locomotive that could complete the 'ordeal' most efficiently would be selected the winner—the key conditions at Rainhill were strength, power and reliability, rather than speed alone. Efficiency was also important, as coal cost money, and having to frequently stop for water would negate any speed advantage over a horse-worked tramway. These calculations allowed the judges to determine the overall performance and economy of each locomotive.
Who were the competitors?
About 10 competitors put their names forward during the summer of 1829, but only five actually arrived at Rainhill in time for the start. Two of these (a horse-powered platform called Cycloped and Perseverance, an adapted engine for a road-going steam coach) were not seriously in contention, leaving just three strong rivals: Novelty, Sans Pareil and Rocket.
Why was Rocket so significant?
Although Rocket impressed and ultimately won at Rainhill, few of its features were new. It was the combination of many existing concepts, from a more effective boiler to a blast-pipe exhaust which made the engine self-regulating, that made Stephenson's design revolutionary and gave it the speed and efficiency needed to win the trials.
These elements became part of virtually every locomotive built during the reign of steam on the world's railways—they weren't invented for Rocket, but their combination in one machine catalysed the development of viable steam locomotives.
Who were the Stephensons?
George Stephenson was born in poverty in Wylam, Northumberland in 1781 and was illiterate until the age of 18. Initially employed as a low-paid fireman for the Wylam Colliery pumping engine, George became an engineman at 17, earning enough money to pay for lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic. He was eventually employed as an engine-wright in charge of pumping engines at Killingworth Colliery, where he built his first locomotive in 1814 and established the Robert Stephenson & Co. engine manufacturing company in 1823. He went on to have a long career as chief engineer for multiple railway lines, including the Stockton & Darlington Railway and the L&MR.
George's son Robert followed him into the engineering profession and was in personal charge of the project to build Rocket, leading on the design—with the exception of a crucially important innovation to the boiler (the use of a large number of narrow-bore fire tubes, rather than a simple large flue), which was suggested by Henry Booth. Robert was so confident of his locomotive's superiority that he came in as joint entrant with his father and Booth. Robert was particularly vocal about the potential of the steam locomotive:
"[…] rely upon it, locomotives shall not be cowardly given up. I will fight for them until the last. They are worthy of a conflict."
Robert wasn't alone in this view—George had already been in correspondence with Timothy Hackworth, who was working on his own engine and would soon become a competitor in the trials, about the possibilities of the steam locomotive.
Were any of the other ideas viable?
The other designs couldn't all be written off out of hand. Novelty was actually faster than Rocket, but broke down and had to withdraw. Cycloped was clearly not in real contention, but amazingly the horse-powered locomotive design was used in America by the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company.
Serious competition for Rocket came from Hackworth's Sans Pareil (French for 'without equal'). Although it was over the maximum weight allowed for a locomotive on four wheels, the judges allowed it to take part in the trials, and the locomotive clearly impressed—the Liverpool & Manchester purchased it afterwards for £550. Hackworth later wrote to the directors of the L&MR that "neither in construction nor in principle was the engine deficient" and that circumstances had been against him in the trials.
It seems likely Robert Stephenson also considered it a rival, having written to Henry Booth in August 1829 describing Hackworth's "ingenious" plan for a boiler. Although not as well-remembered as the Stephensons, Hackworth was a vital figure in the development of steam locomotives and still has his supporters, particularly in County Durham.
What did the public make of the trials?
At a time when the vast majority of people travelled almost exclusively on foot, the spectacle promised by the trials was irresistibly exciting, and crowds of over 10,000 reportedly turned out to watch. There was a band playing, and the lively atmosphere recalled that at a horse race. The ingenuity and futuristic thinking on display at Rainhill also captured the imagination of experts in the field, who came in great numbers to watch the trials.
"[Never] on any occasion were so many scientific gentlemen and practical engineers collected together on one spot."
Although locomotives had been around for 25 years, they had never achieved such feats of speed and power. The newspapers followed progress at the trials, describing in colourful detail the astonishing achievements of the engines, as well as the personal rivalries and tribulations of the engineers.
The Derby Mercury, for instance, described the way Rocket "darted past the spectators", comparing it with the "rapidity with which the swallow darts through the air".
This public fascination with—and sometimes fear of—locomotives continued after the trials and companies were quick to capitalise, producing all manner of commemorative items for sale.
Drawings and paintings from around this time give a real insight into just how unfamiliar the idea of railway travel still was to the public—while the people and landscapes are well-depicted, the locomotives themselves often seem oddly squashed and misproportioned. Artists simply didn't have a frame of reference for how to depict these incredible new machines.
What was the impact of the trials?
Before Rocket powered to victory, steam locomotives were crude and inefficient, only used for slow goods trains. After the trials, the directors of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway were impressed enough with the potential of steam power that they ordered four more locomotives from the Stephensons. None of these were exactly the same—the original Rocket was a prototype built to win the trials, rather than a suitable engine for daily traffic.
The pace of change in railway technology was so fast by this point that Rocket was substantially rebuilt within 18 months and laid aside within 10 years, and by 1840 the original was out of use completely. Rocket wasn't a perfect design, but its success lit the spark which catalysed decades of continued ingenuity in rail engineering.
The L&MR also bought Hackworth's Sans Pareil and ran it on the railway for two years, before selling it to the Bolton and Leigh Railway—evidence of all-round impact of the trials, not simply of Rocket.
The L&MR now linked two great commercial towns with a regular service of fast passenger trains. Professional people could travel to another town, transact a full day's business and return home the same day—an impossibility in the days of coaching.
Freight was carried too, of course, but for the first time it was the passenger who was more important—and, crucially, more profitable. Investors saw the potential, and in a few short years Britain would be in the grip of 'Railway Mania'. The stage was set for steam to dominate the railways for over a century.
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