born 13th April 1771, (now) 35 Station Road, Pool, Cornwall, UK
died 22nd April 1833, The Bull Inn, Dartford, Kent, UK
buried 26th April 1833, East Hill, Dartford, Kent, UK
Written by Eleanor Knowles
An inveterate innovator, Cornishman Richard Trevithick was the inventor of the steam locomotive, building prototypes for road and rail. Along the way he managed to harness the power of steam at high pressures — which he called 'strong steam' — and he used it to drive efficient engines of all kinds. His pioneering work informed the later efforts of the well-known railway engineers George Stephenson and his son Robert Stephenson
, Trevithick's close contemporary.
Trevithick's expertise with machinery was gained by hands-on experience and observation rather than education, but this in no way hindered him. And he more than compensated for any lack of business acumen by his continuous stream of inventive ground-breaking ideas. He realised that a power unit such as a steam engine could be used to drive any type of machine — stationary or travelling. And his irrepressible nature meant he wasn't downcast if a scheme didn't work out — he just moved on to the next exciting project.
He was born two decades after the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, into a rapidly-changing world — an exciting place for a young engineer with so many plans. His career started in the mines of Cornwall, and he travelled throughout England at a time when roads were little more than tracks and Britain was at war with France. In later life he ventured to South America, seeking his fortune, and was embroiled in the civil wars there.
Perhaps his great tragedy was to be born ahead of his time. His contemporaries weren't ready to embrace his ideas, and it was later engineers who developed them, gaining the recognition that largely eluded Trevithick. However, these days the 'Cornish Giant' — he was unusually tall for the time — is certainly recognised for his engineering genius.
portrait of Richard Trevithick courtesy ICE