With his road carriages, Trevithick had proved that steam transport was possible. However, the weight of the engines and the deplorable condition of early 19th century roads wasn't an ideal combination. Running his engines on rails seemed a logical next step. At this point tramways, plateways and wagonways with rudimentary rails did exist but they were for horse-drawn trains.
While he was experimenting with the high pressure engine at the Coalbrookdale foundry
in August 1802, it is likely that he was also developing a locomotive engine to run on the rails there — the foundry had probably the first track fitted with iron rails. A drawing of 1803 shows a locomotive with a 120mm diameter cylinder set horizontally in one end of the boiler, designed to travel on along a 910mm gauge railway. Records of this locomotive working have been lost to history, though a full size replica is on display at the Blist Hill Museum in Ironbridge, Shropshire.
Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution was ensuring that the five major ironworks in the Merthyr Tydfil area — Ynysfach, Cyfarthfa, Dowlais, Penydarren and Plymouth — were kept busy. The Glamorganshire Canal from Merthyr Tydfil via Pontypridd to Cardiff had opened in 1794 but it soon became clogged with iron-laden barges struggling to pass through the numerous locks.
The most congested section was between the Cyfarthfa works, owned by Richard Crawshay (1739-1810), and Abercynon where the canal was 61m lower. The locks at the canal's northern end were often short of water so the canal company abstracted water from the River Taff, reducing supplies to the Plymouth works. It was also said that boat traffic to and from Cyfarthfa was given preference.
On 18th January 1799, the owners of Dowlais, Penydarren and Plymouth ironworks — Thomas Guest (1748-1807), Samuel Homfray and Richard Hill (d.1818) respectively — agreed to build a tramroad between Merthyr Tydfil and Abercynon
for horse-drawn wagons, which would take the iron to the canal's lower reaches. It was constructed without transverse sleepers, to keep the space between the rails clear for horses' hooves. The cast iron tram plates were fixed into wooden pegs set in the centre of square stone blocks. The ruling gradient was 1 in 50.
In 1803, Trevithick was already working on a high pressure stationary engine at Penydarren, so it was an ideal opportunity for him to showcase his locomotive engine at the same time. Homfray and Crawshay each wagered 500 guineas (£525), held by Hill as referee, on whether or not Trevithick's locomotive could haul 10 long tons (11.4 tonnes) of iron from Merthyr Tydfil to Abercynon and return the empty wagons — a task that one horse could achieve.
The trials of this engine, on 11th February 1804, is the first time a steam locomotive is known to have moved on rails. The engine was equipped with a single horizontal 210mm diameter cylinder and driving force was applied to the rear wheels.
On 21st February, the engine made the 15.7km journey in four hours and five minutes, laden with iron and passengers. The total weight, including the engine, was around 25 tonnes. On the way back, one of the bolts between axle and boiler worked loose letting the water out of the boiler and delaying their return.
Crawshay was a passenger and accepted that he had lost the bet but Hill quibbled over awarding the 1,000 guineas to Homfray on the grounds that the engine broke some of the tram plates and the boiler leaked. While it is not clear whether the wager was ever paid, the locomotive went on transporting iron along the tramway until July 1804. After that it was used as a stationary engine at Penydarren to work a hammer.
A proposed multi-purpose demonstration of this same engine being used for pumping, hammering, winding and locomotion to Simon Goodrich (1773-1847) of the Navy Board was cancelled when Homfray was injured in an accident with his horse-drawn gig. However, Trevithick received another commission for a locomotive from Christopher Blackett (1751-1829), the owner of Wylam colliery in Northumberland, a place later linked to local railway pioneer George Stephenson (1741-1848).
Blackett's engine was manufactured between October 1804 and May 1805 at John Whinfield's Pipewellgate foundry in Gateshead, by Tyneside millwright John Steel (1781-1818). Steel had worked with Trevithick at Penydarren and enjoyed a successful career despite having only one leg.
The Gateshead engine was similar to and a little smaller than the Welsh engine, except that its 178mm diameter horizontal cylinder was at the opposite end of the boiler from the chimney. The locomotive also had drive to all four wheels, which were flanged to run on rails.
Trials were staged in the foundry's yard on a temporary track, but at 4.6 tonnes the locomotive was thought to be too heavy for Wylam colliery's wooden tramway. It never moved from Pipewellgate and was used instead as a stationary blowing engine for the foundry. Blackett remained keen to have a locomotive and ordered the 8km Wylam tramway to be relaid with iron rails. This was completed in 1808. About a year later he asked Trevithick to build another locomotive but by then the Cornishman was busy with other projects and declined.
Trevithick's last locomotive was built at Hazledine & Co in Bridgnorth, overseen by John Urpeth Rastrick (1780-1856). It was named Catch-Me-Who-Can by Davies Gilbert's sister Mary Phillipa Guillemard.
Trevithick dispensed with the multi-tasking concept of earlier designs and concentrated instead on a simple locomotive intended only for pulling wagons along rails. The locomotive weighed about 8 tonnes, making it the heaviest of his steam vehicles. This time, the single cylinder was set vertically into the boiler, which gave direct drive to the rear wheels.
Catch-Me-Who-Can was publically exhibited
in July, August and September 1808 near Euston Square in London. It pulled an open carriage around a purpose-built circular track, said to be 30m or more in diameter, within a high-walled timber enclosure. People could ride in the carriage for a fare of one shilling (5p).
Unfortunately the track was on soft ground and the weight of the locomotive caused the sleepers to sink, breaking many of the iron plate rails. Towards the end of July, Trevithick took up the track and relaid it over large baulks of timber.
The engineer and inventor John Isaac Hawkins (1772-1854) was one of the passengers and he recalled the experience after Trevithick's death in a letter to Mechanics' Magazine, dated 27th March 1847.
"I think it due to the memory of that extraordinary man to declare that about the year 1808 he laid down a circular railway in a field adjoining the New Road, near or at the spot now forming the southern half of Euston Square; that he placed a locomotive engine, weighing about 10 tons, on that railway — on which I rode, with my watch in hand — at the rate of 12 miles an hour [19.3km per hour]; that Mr. Trevithick then gave his opinion that it would go 20 miles an hour [32.2km per hour], or more, on a straight railway; that the engine was exhibited at one shilling admittance, including a ride for the few who were not so timid; that it ran for some weeks, when a rail broke and occasioned the engine to fly off in a tangent and overrun, the ground being very soft at the time."
"Mr. Trevithick having expended all his means in erecting the works and enclosure, and the shillings not having come in fast enough to pay current expenses, the engine was not again set on the rail."
On Sunday 18th September 1808, the Observer newspaper carried the following advertisement.
"Extraordinary Wager. It has been some time announced, that the new machine for travelling without horses, being impelled entirely by steam, was matched to run twenty-four hours against any horse in the kingdom. This bet, so novel in the sporting world, will be decided on Wednesday and Thursday next [21st and 22nd September]. The machine is to start at two o’clock on Wednesday, on its ground in the fields, near Russel-square, to demonstrate the extent of its speed and continuance. It is calculated that the machine, though weighing eight tuns, will travel 240 miles, at least, within the time limited. Very large sums are depending on the issue."
Even this tactic did not result in any orders for Trevithick to build locomotives and the result of the bet remains unknown. However, the fate of Catch-Me-Who-Can is known. She was installed in a barge used originally by the Lord Mayor of London.
Disillusioned by the lack of public interest, Trevithick ended his involvement with locomotive engines and turned his mind to other applications of steam power. The first rail locomotives were not really the problem, they hauled thier loads as intended, but the tracks and rails were just not up to the loads imposed upon them.
Furthermore, at this point the idea of a countrywide railway network was still almost 20 years away. In the first decade of the 19th century, waterways were the great transport arteries of the nation, with tramways and rail tracks providing only local delivery links.
portrait of Richard Trevithick Institution of Civil Engineers