In 1801, Stephenson started working as a brakesman at Black Callerton Colliery. Following year, he married and moved to Willington Quay continuing his work as a brakesman. For extra income, he learned to repair shoes, fix clocks and cut clothes.
After the birth of his son, he shifted to work at the Killingworth Pit. In 1811, he was promoted as an enginewright for the Killington Colleries after he successfully fixed a pumping engine at High Pit. Soon, he became an expert of steam-driven machinery.
Taking cue from John Blenkinsop’s travelling engine, Stephenson devised his first locomotive in 1814. The engine was designed for hauling coal on Killingworth wagonway and was named Blucher. The first steam engine powered locomotive to run on railroad, it could haul 30 tons of coal up a hill at 4mph. It became the most successful working steam engine that had ever been constructed.
Having spent a better part of his life at coal mines, Stephenson was not naïve to the explosive danger faced by the mining industry. The workers used naked flames in pits full of inflammable gases. As such, to minimise the risk of explosion, he invented a safety lamp in 1815. The lamp used a cylinder with tiny air holes that restricted the exposure.
Following the success of his first locomotive engine, Stephenson devised 16 more locomotives for Killingworth. In 1817, he built a six-wheeled locomotive for Kilmarnock and Troon Railway.
In 1820, he was entrusted with the task of creating 8-mile railway in Hetton Colliery Railway. It was the first railway to be solely machine-powered and did not use any kind of animal power. The success of the railway led him to patent his cast iron rails.
Following the success of Hetton Colliery railway, he was appointed as an engineer for the construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1821. The line was 25 miles long and connected collieries at Stockton and Darlington. His son Robert assisted him in the project.
On September 27, 1825, the Stockton and Darlington railway started operating. The first locomotive for the railway named Locomotion hauled more than 80 tons of coal and flour for nine miles in two hours at a speed of 24 miles per hour on one stretch.
Stephenson built the first passenger car for the Stockton and Darlington railway route. Powered by the locomotive Experiment, it carried luminaries in its opening journey. With that, it became the world’s first public railways to run on steam locomotive.
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During the building of Stockton and Darlington Railway, Stephenson created the historic measurement of the rail gauge at four feet eight-and-a-half inches which became the standard measurement of the railway gauge not just in Britain but all over the world. Till date, railways across the continents use Stephenson’s four feet eight-and-a-half inches gauge measurement.
The success of Stockton and Darlington railway multiplied Stephenson’s fame by manifolds. He was chosen as the chief engineer for the Liverpool and Manchester Railways.
A year before Liverpool and Manchester Railways were to become operational, a contest for the best and most powerful locomotive was held in 1829. Amidst the ten entries, Rocket, an engine devised by Stephenson and his son emerged as the clear winner. Rocket sped past at 36mph, breaking all previous records.
The Liverpool and Manchester Railways was inaugurated on September 15, 1830 amidst distinguished luminaries including Prime Minister of Waterloo and Duke of Wellington. Eight locomotives, all of which were built at Stephenson’s Newcastle works, were used on the Liverpool-Manchester line.
The success of laying railroad transportation and the feat of creating a superfast locomotive Rocket gave Stephenson a celebrity status. Such was the effect that railroad building spread rapidly throughout Britain, Europe, and North America, with Stephenson as the chief engineer for most projects. He also acted as a consultant on several railroad projects at home and abroad.
While the successful railroad transportation made Stephenson rich and famous, excavations undertaken to build railway lines led him to discover valuable coal reserves that make him wealthier and more affluent. This became prominent while Leicester and Swannington railway was in progress. Stephenson’s coal mine delivered the first rail cars of coal into Leicester, thus reducing the coal rates dramatically.
The decade between 1838 and 1848 was the busiest period for Stephenson as he was flooded with requests from railway builders across the world. Furthermore, his locomotive building business thrived exceptionally well as builders purchased locomotives from Stephenson’s Newcastle Works. He also superintended many of the railway projects including York and North Midland line, Manchester and Leeds line, Birmingham and Derby line, Sheffield and Rotherham line and so on.
Stephenson major contribution has been as the inventor of the first commercial locomotive and railways. In 1814, he combined tramways and steam engine to make the first commercially viable locomotive, Blucher. Blucher was essentially created to haul coal. Though Blucher was extremely slow at 4mph, it marked the end of horsepower.
In 1822, he created the first machine-powered locomotive railway for the Hetton Colliery. However, his biggest breakthrough came with Stockton and Darlington railway line in 1825. It was the first public steam locomotive railway in the world. The success led way to several more railway lines including Liverpool and Manchester Railway and so on.
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Stephenson is also credited for coming up with the historic measurement of the rail gauge at four feet eight-and-a-half inches which has become the standard measurement of the railway gauge all over the globe.
In 1829, Stephenson, along with his son Robert, created the most powerful locomotive engine of that time, Rocket. Rocket sped past at 36mph, breaking all previous records.
Personal Life & Legacy
Stephenson was involved in a number of romantic relationships before marrying Frances (Fanny) on November 28, 1802 at Newburn Church. The couple was blessed with two children, Robert and Fanny. Fanny died in infancy.
Following the death of his wife Frances due to tuberculosis, Stephenson remarried Betty Hindmarsh at Newburn on March 29, 1820. They did not have any children. Betty passed away in 1845.
Stephenson married for a third time to Ellen Gregory, his housekeeper, on January 11, 1848 at St John's Church in Shrewsbury, Shropshire.
He died on August 12, 1848, due to pleurisy. He was buried at Holy Trinity Church, Chesterfield.
For his outstanding contribution in civil and mechanical engineering, he has been commemorated variedly. His birthplace home in Wylam has been converted into a historic house museum.
Several colleges, schools, institutions and pubic societies have been named after him. He also has a railway museum in North Shields by the name Stephenson Railway Museum.
From 1990 until 2003, his portrait appeared on the reverse of E £5 notes series issued by the Bank of England.
In 2002, he was named in the BBC’s list of 100 Greatest Britons.