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Blucher, Stephenson's first locomotive, site of
West Moor, Killingworth, Tyne & Wear, UK
associated engineer
George Stephenson
date  1814
era  Georgian  |  category  Steam Engine or Locomotive  |  reference  NZ278712
George Stephenson constructed his first steam locomotive for the wagonway at Killingworth Colliery, Northumberland, where he worked as an enginewright. Though rudimentary to modern eyes, this locomotive was the first to propel itself along rails by the adhesion of its wheels alone, showing the potential of mechanical locomotion to replace horse power. Blucher has not survived and no complete drawing of it exists, but its place in engineering history is assured.
George Stephenson (1781-1848) had been involved with Killingworth Colliery since 1804, working at West Moor Pit until 1806. The colliery wagonway passed close to his house in Killingworth, with loaded coal wagons riding the tracks under gravity and empty ones returned by horse haulage.
After a couple of years in Scotland, Stephenson resumed work at Killingworth Colliery in 1808. From 1812, he held the post of enginewright and was responsible for maintaining the pit steam engines. In the wake of Richard Trevithick's (1771-1833) pioneering steam locomotives of 1804 and 1808, rail locomotives were beginning to appear on colliery wagonways. Their adoption undoubtedly benefited from the ready availability of fuel (coal).
In 1812, the rack and pinion locomotive Salamanca was built for Middleton Colliery in Leeds. It used John Blenkinsop's (1783-1831) design for rack propulsion and Matthew Murray's (1765-1826) locomotive with a cog wheel pinion. A similar locomotive worked the Kenton & Coxlodge Railway in 1813.
In 1813, at Wylam Colliery near Newcastle upon Tyne, William Hedley (1779-1843) designed the locomotives Puffing Billy and Wylam Dilly, which had coupled wheels. Hedley worked with Timothy Hackworth (1786-1850) and Jonathan Foster (1775-1860) on the construction. The design dispensed with rack and pinion, believing (correctly) that the weight of the engine would give sufficient adhesion enable it to move along the rail tracks at Wylam without slipping. However, the first engine had only one cylinder with a flywheel to regulate the crankshaft, resulting in an uneven action that frequently halted forward movement.
Undaunted, Stephenson set about following the trend by building a locomotive at Killingworth, reputedly in the colliery workshop behind his house (Dial Cottage, Great Lime Road). The machine was named in honour of Prussian field marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (1742-1819), a charismatic leader of the allies in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) and a staunch supporter of the Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley, 1769-1852). Blücher became Füüst von Wahlstatt (Prince of Wahlstatt) in 1814, and took part in a state visit to England in June the same year.
Blucher made her first journeys over the colliery railway on 25th and 27th July 1814. Nicholas Wood (1795-1865), Killingworth Colliery’s manager and personal friend of Stephenson, documented the events in his Practical Treatise on Rail-Roads (published 1825). He tells us that the locomotive had two cylinders, each 203mm in diameter with a 610mm stroke, and a cylindrical boiler, 2.44m long and 864mm in diameter, with a single flue tube of 508mm diameter.
The machine had flanged wheels and travelled "upon a piece of road with the edge-rail" — in contrast with the smooth wheels and flanged plateway of Hedley's locomotives. Blucher ascended a slope of about 1 in 450, pulling "after it, exclusive of its own weight, eight loaded carriages, weighing altogether about thirty tons [30.5 tonnes], at the rate of four miles an hour [6.4kph]".
The cylinders drove two crankshafts, which "rendered the action of the engine regular". The crankshafts were geared to the locomotive’s two wheel axles by cogged wheels of 305mm and 610mm diameter, so the connecting rods made two revolutions to every one revolution of the driving wheels. The arrangement caused alternating pressure on the cogs and wheels, producing rather jerky and noisy motion. The rattling and the jerking tended to become worse as the cogged teeth grew more worn.
Initially, the rear wheels of the engine were connected to the front wheels of the "convoy-carriage containing the coals and water" (tender) by endless chains, to ensure the tender wheels gripped the cast iron edge-rails sufficiently to propel the locomotive forward. However, the device soon proved unnecessary. Nevertheless, the combination of unsprung engine wheels and uneven tracks resulted in recurrent derailments.
At first, steam from the two cylinders was exhausted into the atmosphere — just as on the Blenkinsop and Murray locomotives. But Blucher, like many other early locomotives, suffered from being short of steam when she needed power. Stephenson decided to experiment with diverting the exhaust steam into the engine's chimney through an upturned pipe, effectively recreating the blast pipe that Trevithick had used more than 10 years previously.
Though effective to a certain extent, the steam blast increased coal consumption dramatically and made a such a loud noise that the horses sharing the wagonway were petrified. With a single flue boiler, it also tended to suck fire up the chimney and spew cinders along the track. Stephenson abandoned the blast pipe and increased the diameter of the flue, increasing the heating surface and raising more steam.
James Stephenson (1779-1847), George’s elder brother, was Blucher’s first driver and her fireman was Thomas Ward. Apparently, James' wife Jinnie would help to push the reluctant locomotive over the turnpike road crossing and regularly got up early to start the fire in the engine. Such shortcomings aside, the locomotive established Stephenson’s reputation, and Wood notes that it "continued regularly at work".
Blucher was quickly followed by two locomotives of similar, though improved, design — My Lord named for Lord Ravensworth (Thomas Henry Liddell, 1775-1855), one of the colliery’s principal partners, and Wellington after the hero of Waterloo. According to some sources, My Lord was the first locomotive to be built, possibly later renamed Blucher. Wood does not record the names of the machines.
To overcome the difficulty of transmitting power evenly to the wheels, Stephenson simplified the spur gear arrangement. He coupled the connecting rods directly to crank pins on the wheels, with chain drive between sprockets on the axles — the alternative, using cranked axles with coupling rods, was not possible with the forging techniques then available at Killingworth. The two vertical cylinders were also more widely spaced inside the boiler, now positioned over the axle centres.
The improvements were patented on 28th February 1815, by Stephenson and Killingworth head viewer Ralph Dodd (or Dodds, 1792-1874). Wood tells us that, "An engine of this construction was tried upon the Killingworth Rail-road, on March 6th, 1815, and found to work remarkably well".
In addition, the upgraded locomotives had slide valves to regulate the steam. Wood developed the system for actuating the valves by two eccentrics, one on each axle, using rods and bell cranks.
Apart from Wood's drawing of the gear drive of Stephenson's first locomotive, nothing of it has survived. The colliery workshop is also no longer in evidence, though Dial Cottage still stands.
Research: ECPK
"George Stephenson: The Remarkable Life of the Founder of the Railways" by Hunter Davies, revised edition, Sutton Publishing Limited, Stroud, 2004
"George and Robert Stephenson: The Railway Revolution" by L.T.C. Rolt, Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1984
"George Stephenson: The Engineer & His Letters" by W.O. Skeat, The Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London, 1973
"The Oldest Working Locomotive in the World", in The Engineer, p.57, 18th July 1902
"A Practical Treatise on Rail-Roads, and Interior Communication in General; with Original Experiments, and Tables of the Comparative Value of Canals and Rail-Roads" by Nicholas Wood, Knight & Lacey, London, 1825
reference sources   Smiles3

Blucher, Stephenson's first locomotive, site of