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Puffing Devil demonstration, site of
Eastern Lane, Tuckingmill, Camborne, Cornwall, UK
<em>Puffing Devil</em> demonstration, site of
associated engineer
Richard Trevithick
date  November 1800 - 28th December 1801
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Steam Engine or Locomotive  |  reference  SW645405
photo  Eleanor Knowles
In December 1801, Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick successfully demonstrated his steam-driven road locomotive, Puffing Devil. This was the first time people had travelled under mechanical power in Britain. Unfortunately, the vehicle was to have a short life, making just three journeys before it was damaged in a fire. But it heralded the future of vehicular traffic. The photo shows a modern replica in action.
Trevithick (1771-1833) had been experimenting with models of engines that could travel, literally, under their own steam since 1797. Around November 1800 he began assembling the first full size prototype, at John Tyack’s smithy in Eastern Lane, Camborne. The total cost of materials was around Ł70.
Parts for the engine were made in different locations — the wrought iron boiler fittings came from the boiler works that Nicholas Holman (1777-1862) established in 1801 at Foundry Road and the castings, steam cylinder and stuffing boxes were from Harvey & Co. in Hayle. The boiler shell was made by either Holman or Harveys. The steam gauge, wrought iron plating and barometer were from the Coalbrookdale foundry in Shropshire. Trevithick’s cousin Andrew Vivian (1759-1842) made the other components on his own lathe.
The finished engine weighed more than 1.5 tonnes, and had four wheels on a square frame chassis and a small passenger platform. It worked at a steam pressure of 414kN per sq m. A single cylinder was set vertically into the top of one end of the boiler, with the furnace and chimney at the other end. The internal flue tube was U-shaped to increase its heating surface and the boiler was equipped with a safety valve.
Nobody had seen anything like it before — a metal monster that moved on its own and belched steam from its chimney, so it was soon named Puffing Devil. As the light was fading on 24th December 1801, Trevithick, Vivian and about six other men climbed aboard the locomotive and set out from the smithy uphill towards Camborne beacon, travelling at 6.4km per hour. Rain was falling, cooling the boiler, and Puffing Devil did not reach the top of the hill. According to the recollections of witnesses some 50 years afterwards, it covered between 0.8km and 2.4km in total. The historic event later inspired the Cornish folk song Camborne Hill.
Puffing Devil’s second outing was the following day, 25th December, when Trevithick and Vivian visited Vivian’s family home at Crane Manor — a round trip of some 3km. This was the longest journey that the engine completed, though few details of it survive.
The locomotive’s third and final journey took place on 28th December, when Trevithick and Vivian left the smithy bound for the Basset family’s mansion, Tehidy House (SW654434), some 4km away. They had covered less than one third of this distance, with Trevithick tending the engine and Vivian steering, when they hit a gully in the road and the steering handle was wrenched from Vivian’s hands and Puffing Devil overturned.
Apparently it was soon heaved upright by passers-by and trundled into an outbuilding of Knapp’s Hotel on Tehidy Road. The party consoled themselves over the engine’s breakdown with food and drink at the hotel. Either a fire was still burning in Puffing Devil’s furnace, or the water in the hot boiler evaporated, but the metal parts became red hot and set fire to the timbers until "everything capable of burning was consumed".
Trevithick and Vivian were not about to give up and they patented their ideas for steam engines to drive carriages on 26th March 1802. They went on to build a bigger vehicle a year later, which ran in London.
The centenary of the first road locomotive was reported in The West Briton newspaper in January 1902. On Christmas Eve 1901, a brass band, a group of leading townsmen and eight traction engines made their way from Fore Street through Camborne town centre to Commercial Square, where they and the many spectators were treated to a lantern slide show about Trevithick and Vivian.
The 1801 Christmas Eve journey was also commemorated with a wall plaque erected in Tehidy Road (SW646405) on 19th July 1919.
Trevithick is remembered annually in his home town of Camborne, when Trevithick Day is celebrated on the last Saturday in April. In 1996, the Trevithick Society decided to build a working replica of Puffing Devil to mark its bicentenary (see photo at the top of the article). The machine was completed in time for 2001 Trevithick Day, and since then has joined a host of other steam powered vehicles parading through the streets on the day — often accompanied by renditions of Camborne Hill.
Research: ECPK
“Richard Trevithick: Giant of Steam” by Anthony Burton, Aurum Press Ltd, London, 2000
"Richard Trevithick's First Steam-Locomotive Trial, Christmas 1801”
by Lloyd H. Woodcock, in Transactions of the Newcomen Society, London, 1971
“The Cornish Giant: The Story of Richard Trevithick, father of the steam locomotive” by L.T.C. Rolt, Lutterworth Press, London, 1960
“Richard Trevithick: the engineer and the man” by H.W. Dickinson and Arthur Titley, Cambridge University Press, London, 1934
“Life of Richard Trevithick, with an account of his inventions”
by Francis Trevithick, E. & F.N. Spon, London, 1872

Puffing Devil demonstration, site of