Richard Trevithick the Cornish Giant of Steam
Richard Trevithick was born at Illogan, Cornwall in 1771. His father was a mine engineer and manager. He was not a success at school and was more interested in sport than learning. He was over six feet high before he was 18 and was one of the best wrestlers in Cornwall.
He went to work with his father at the mine and showed that he was a very clever engineer. He improved the steam engine used at the mine. While still very young, he was promoted to be the engineer at Ding Dong Mine. This is between Pendeen and Penzance. Steam engines at this time were huge affairs: they were part of the building that contained them. The engine houses can still be seen in many places in west Cornwall.
Trevithick wanted to make small powerful steam engines which could be moved around easily and do other things besides hauling loads up mine shafts and pumping out water. He used steam at high pressure. The engines designed by James Watt and built by Matthew Boulton used steam at low pressure. Boulton and Watt tried and failed to get Parliament to pass a law making high pressure steam engines illegal as they were dangerous. In 1802 he produced his first steam engine using what he called 'strong steam'.
He wanted to make a steam locomotive – a machine that moved under its own power. He succeeded and in 1801 his engine took Richard and seven friends up the hill from Camborne where he now lived. The locomotive caught fire when it was left outside the pub at the top of the hill where Trevithick and his friends were celebrating.
Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of A Cocks at Cornwall Council