Though the exact date is unknown, two hundred years ago, the oldest extant steam locomotive had been completed and was undergoing its first tests. There had been other steam locomotives built in England before Puffing Billy, but none of them have survived into the twenty-first century. Despite the eventual success which Puffing Billy achieved, it would be more than a decade before a public railway service was first introduced into Great Britain. In the end, Puffing Billy remained in service for nearly half a century, but it was in the early years of the Regency that reliable steam locomotion first came to England.
The trials and tribulations of the genesis of Puffing Billy, and his sister …
Possibly the first steam locomotive built in England was the Puffing Devil, constructed by Richard Trevithick, in 1801. This vehicle was actually a steam carriage, since it did not run on rails. On Christmas Eve that year, Trevithick successfully demonstrated his steam-powered carriage by carrying six passengers along Fore Street, in Camborne, Cornwall. But sadly, a few days later, the machine broke down during another run. The operators left the steam carriage to have lunch in a nearby tavern, but did not extinguish the fire which heated the water in the boiler. During their meal, the water boiled away, the locomotive caught fire and was destroyed. Trevithick went on to build other successful locomotives, some of which ran on rails, even before the Regency began, but none of them have survived.
Today, most people assume railways and steam locomotives were both invented at the same time. In fact, railways with raised rails had been developed more than two centuries before the first locomotives. Track roads, typically stone roads into which tracks were cut, date back to the quarries of ancient Greece and Rome, over which draft animals drew the cut stone. In the mid-sixteenth century, German miners working near Keswick, in Cumberland, were using large wooden tubs which ran on raised wooden rails to move ore out of the royal mines there. In 1604, near Nottingham, the Wollaton Waggonway was completed for the purpose of hauling coal ore. Waggons running on rails were easier for horses to pull. As the eighteenth century progressed, more and more mines, particularly coal mines, built waggonways for the transport of coal ore by horses. Such track roadways were also known as railways, tramways, or plateways. Waggonways and tramways typically had rails which were made only of wood, while plateways were made of wooden rails topped with plates of iron to reduce wear and extend their usable life. Railways usually consisted of tracks made completely of iron.
In 1804, Christopher Blackett, owner of the Wylam Colliery, hired Richard Trevithick to build a steam locomotive which would run on his wooden waggonway to pull the coal waggons which had previously been drawn by horses. But Trevithick’s locomotive weighed five tons and it turned out to be too heavy for the existing waggonway. The wooden rails broke under the great weight of the locomotive and it was never put into service. In 1808, Blackett replaced his wooden railway with a sturdy cast-iron plate-rail system. With horses becoming increasingly more expensive and difficult to acquire as the Peninsular War raged on, he was intent on replacing the horses at his mine with a steam locomotive.
Many engineers across England had been experimenting with steam power since the mid-eighteenth century. By 1805, William Hedley was working at Blackett’s Wylam Colliery as a "viewer," the term for an overseer or manager at a coal mine at that time. Hedley was aware of the other steam locomotives which had been built and he was eager to find more efficient means by which to move larger loads of coal ore from the mine to the Lemington docks on the River Tyne more quickly. Blackett encouraged Hedley to pursue his ideas. In the second year of the Regency, Hedley had a dream in which the solution to what he saw as the greatest obstacle to constructing a viable locomotive came to him in a blinding flash.
Hedley knew he could design a locomotive which would be light enough to travel over the new iron-plate railway which Blackett had had built at the colliery. But he faced another, greater obstacle: how to get any traction with smooth iron wheels against smooth iron rails. The year 1812 brought near disaster to England, as cold and bad weather forced the price of wheat in England to the highest point known in nearly three centuries. In addition, the price of fodder for animals, including horses, was rising to exorbitant levels. Hedley was aware that if Blackett could not afford to get enough food for his horses, the mine might have to close, leaving Hedley and his family with no income. One evening in the fall of that terrible year, Hedley retired for the night, deeply troubled about his future and desperate for a solution. As he drifted in a restless state between sleeping and waking, an idea suddenly flashed through his mind: if all the wheels of a locomotive were connected, any tendency of one or two of the wheels to slip on the iron rails would be overcome by the combined power of the other wheels.
The very next morning, Hedley had a small-scale frame and a set of wheels made, and with the help of a clockmaker in Newcastle, he was able to complete a fully functional model of this connected wheel system by the next day. When his model worked successfully, just as his dream had predicted, he knew he could build a reliable steam locomotive to carry the coal from the mine to the docks. He discussed his ideas with the mine owner and Christopher Blackett commissioned a design of a steam locomotive from his colliery viewer. Hedley’s first locomotive was built in 1812, but there were some performance problems and Hedley reworked his design.
In 1813, Hedley’s new locomotive design was constructed at the Wylam Colliery workshops under the direction of the smithy foreman, Timothy Hackworth and Jonathan Forster, the engine-wright. Thus was built the first adhesion locomotive in history, and, after a half century of service, it would survive to be the oldest existing steam locomotive in the world. The wagons used to convey coal at the mine were called dillys, and this new locomotive had two vertical steam exhaust stacks which constantly puffed out steam. It was christened "Puffing Dilly," but that was soon changed to Puffing Billy, after its creator, William Hedley.
There were a number of problems with Puffing Billy early on. It initially had problems staying on the tracks, so its four wheels were doubled to eight, all connected by rods to ensure the best traction on the iron rails as well as to further spread the weight of the locomotive over the rails. The locomotive was not interested in hay or oats, but it consumed vast quantities of coal while spewing out clouds of smoke and occassionally sparks, which sometimes started small fires along the railway. The loud puffing and snorting of the engine was voted a public nuisance by landholders along the railway because it frightened their livestock grazing in the fields. Some of them even filed lawsuits, but the court cases were all eventually resolved, in part because Puffing Billy had proved himself much to valuable to the economy of the Newcastle area. Horses were most afraid of Puffing Billy, and the courts did order that the locomotive had to be stopped whenever a cart, carriage or rider approached the railway in its vicinity. Hedley made some adjustments to the steam release stacks so that the steam could escape gradually, thus reducing the noise from the engine and making it less frightening to horses. The engine was then allowed to continue on its way regardless of any horses near the railway. Thanks to Puffing Billy, the Wylam Colliery not only survived but thrived, William Hedley kept his job and was soon at work on another steam locomotive. The sister of Puffing Billy was christened Wylam Dilly. Some years later another locomotive was constructed and was named Lady Mary.
Puffing Billy’s boiler was made of wrought iron, and was a return flue type, similar in design to that used by Trevithick in the locomotive he had built for Blackett in 1804. The heavy iron plates were all hammered into shape and riveted in place. The boiler provided a working pressure of fifty pounds per square inch which was ample to power a double cylinder system. Puffing Billy could draw ten to twelve fully loaded coal wagons, about twenty-one and a half tons, at an average speed of six miles per hour. A team of horses could only draw, at most, two wagons at a time, at an average speed of two miles an hour. Once the Wylam Dilly and Lady Mary engines were at work, the Wylam Colliery had no further need of draft horses to deliver its coal to the docks on the River Tyne.
Puffing Billy was the first steam locomotive to employ the adhesion rail system of iron wheels on iron rails and the first steam locomotive to be successfully put into regular, ongoing commercial service. When Puffing Billy first went into service, it was hailed as a "noble triumph of science" and well over a year visitors from all over the country lined the railway to watch it in action. As William Hedley had built on the steam locomotive designs of Richard Trevithick, so did George Stephenson build on the designs of William Hedley. Stephenson is known to have visited the Wylam Colliery on more than one occasion to study the design and operation of Hedley’s locomotive. In 1814, Stephenson began work on his own locomotive, and though it was not successful, he persevered and went on to build the world’s first public inter-city railroad.
Puffing Billy and Wylam Dilly both continued in use at the Wylam Colliery for nearly fifty years, until 1862, when they were finally retired. Puffing Billy went to the South Kensington Museum, now known as the Science Museum of London, where it remains to this day. Wylam Dilly went north, where it is on display in the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh. Some of the locomotives which were built before Puffing Billy have been rebuilt based on plans and sketches from the era, but Puffing Billy is not a reproduction. It is the real thing, the oldest surviving steam locomotive in the world and is considered one of the most valuable relics of mechanical engineering in existence. And it first hit the rails two hundred years ago this year.