George Stephenson (1781–1848)

Civil and mechanical engineer

George Stephenson, about 1830
George Stephenson

The combination of George Stephenson’s achievements in both civil and mechanical engineering has directly influenced much of our railway infrastructure. He foresaw a national network of lines, running at a ‘standard gauge’ with minimal gradients. Routes he surveyed and structures he designed and built are still in use today. For this pioneering work he is known as the father of the railways. 

George Stephenson was born at Wylam, near Newcastle upon Tyne. Without a formal education, at the age of 18 Stephenson paid for his own lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic and quickly displayed considerable mechanical aptitude. His early career was spent working on different types of industrial machinery particularly at collieries in the North East at a time when the industry was expanding rapidly to satisfy the demand of the mills and factories at the start of the industrial revolution. New technologies such as steam engines and fixed rails for easy transportation were being developed for its exploitation.

During the early 19th century, George Stephenson held a number of different jobs around the north east and in Scotland, working on and looking after these early industrial machines. These were hard times, particularly after his first wife (and mother of Robert) died in 1806. However, things began to change when in 1811 Stephenson successfully identified and then fixed a problem with a Newcomen engine which had been installed at a mine belonging to a group of wealthy and influential north east businessmen. They were so impressed with Stephenson’s ability and approach, they put him in charge of all machinery at all of their pits, and paid him an annual salary of £100 per year. For the next ten years while at Killingworth colliery George Stephenson undertook many different experiments and projects relating to steam engines, locomotives and rails, including building his first steam locomotive, Blucher, the first to use flanged wheels rolling on a smooth iron rail. During this time he formulated the ideas that would inform his work on the early railways for which he was to become famous.

Father of the railways

In 1821 the Stockton & Darlington Railway was authorised. Edward Pease, its chief promoter, wanted to enhance transport links between collieries in County Durham and trade routes to London. The line was originally designed to be hauled by horses. However, having been convinced by Stephenson’s experiments with rails and steam engines at Killingworth, the Stockton & Darlington Railway recruited him as engineer to the new railway. George, assisted by his son Robert, surveyed the line and drew up plans for a railway which was to be the first in the world designed specifically to use locomotives. Parliament passed the Stockton & Darlington Railway Act and the first iron rail was laid on 23 May 1823. The 26 mile line of the Stockton & Darlington Railway opened for traffic on 27th September 1825, running Locomotion No1, built at Robert Stephenson & Co in Newcastle. The influence of the original plan for the railway for use by horse and cart influenced George’s use of what was to become known as ‘standard gauge’. - 4ft 8 1/2 in between the rails.

The success Stephenson enjoyed with the Stockton & Darlington railway meant that he was much in demand with other fledgling railway projects. He was quickly enlisted by the Liverpool & Manchester Railway and was appointed their chief engineer bringing with him his assistant Joseph Locke. Stephenson understood that for maximum efficiency of the engines, gradients had to be kept to a minimum. To keep the line as level as possible, building the Liverpool & Manchester Railway included major civil engineering undertakings on a scale not seen before, for example at the Sankey Viaduct, the skew bridge at Rainhill, the Wapping Tunnel and the cutting at Olive Mount. The Rainhill Trials in October 1829 settled once and for all the advantages of locomotive power on the new railway as Rocket, built by Robert Stephenson & Co proved that engines could be fast and reliable. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway - the first intercity railway in the world - opened for traffic on 15 September 1830 with great ceremony, during which George drove Rocket in the procession.

The success of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway secured George Stephenson’s position, and he became associated with many railway projects mainly in the north midlands and south Pennines during the 1830s, including linking the Liverpool and Manchester Railway with lines to Birmingham (the Grand Junction Railway) and Leeds (the Manchester & Leeds Railway). By the 1840s George Stephenson stepped back from railway engineering, concentrating instead on his interests in mining. Younger engineers such as his son Robert Stephenson, Joseph Locke and Isambard Kingdom Brunel were driving the construction and development of the railway forward. During this time he was a founder of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and was appointed its first President in 1847, shortly before his death in Chesterfield on 12 August 1848.

Did you know?

George Stephenson’s use of the ‘standard gauge’ was influenced by horse and carts. Carts were traditionally made with 5ft between the wheels, in proportion with the size of an average work horse. Early trackways for use by horse and cart used a dimension of around 4ft 8in, By the time Stephenson was designing the S&DR and the L&MR this dimension was already a well recognised measure. A gauge of 4ft 8 1/2in is still used today as the standard for railways around the world, including ours. 

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