Richard Trevithick

Richard Trevithick
Richard Trevithick
Illogan, Cornwall, England
Death date
Associated organizations
Vivian and West, Wulam Colliery
Fields of study
Mechanical Engineering


Richard Trevithick was a British inventor and engineer. Relying on steam that is extremely high in heat and pressure, his "Puffing Devil" is widely considered to be the world's first demonstration of a steam powered vehicle. [1].

Trevithick was born on April 13th 1771 in Illogan, Cornwall, England. He spent his youth at Illogan in a tin mining district of Cornwall and attended the village school. Considered a terrible student, his teachers referred to him as a "disobedient, slow, obstinate, spoiled boy" who would never amount to anything. His father (who was a mine manager) considered him to be someone who wasted his time on meaningless tasks and hobbies. Additionally, throughout his career Trevithick was considered to be illiterate. This did not stop him from having a fondness in tinkering with machinery, as at a young age he was noted for being a protege in understanding mechanical engineering[2].

He obtained his fist job as an engineer to a group of Cornish ore mines in 1790 at the age of 19. Seven years later, he married Jane Harvey of a prominent engineering family. He went on to have six children with her, one of which became the superintendent of the London and North Western Railway and eventually wrote a biography on his father[3].

Living in Cornwall during this time, Trevithick and many other engineers observed that the high import costs encouraged the ore-miner operators to conserve consumption of fuel for pumping and hoisting. Increased energy efficiency was a strong motivating factor in developing and alternative mode of transportation. [4].

Many engineers were weary expanding the efficiency of the steam engine as there was the potential of increasing danger to the user. Using "strong steam", many engineers were reluctant to work with the super heated liquid, but Trevithick was not discouraged. Through observation and experiment, he realized that using high pressure strong steam and allowing it to expand within a cylinder, a much smaller and lighter engine could be built without reduced power from the low-pressure engines[5].

Nearing the end of the decade, Watt's patents expired, which allowed Trevithick to pursue his experimentation on high pressure steam engines. [6]. In 1796 he had successfully produced a miniaturized locomotive that efficiently ran on strong steam. On Christmas Eve in 1801 he demonstrated an early version of the engine and used it to take his friends on a short ride. Calling it the "Puffing Devil", it was only able to go short distances as it lacked the ability to produce the steam for an extended period of time[7].

Trevithick met with a company called Vivian and West that agreed to fund his experiments. After a few days of using the locomotive, it failed in performing the tasks given, leading to the company pulling funding from Trevithick. He found a replacement sponsor from Penydarren Ironworks, which allowed him in 1804 to produce the worlds first steam engine to run successfully on rails. He was then hired by Wulam Colliery, where he created a locomotive to replace horse drawn carriages. It failed, as the weight was too heavy for the wooden track. Eventually in 1808 he erected the circular railway in Euston Square so he could run further tests on locomotive technology, but eventually had to suspend it as rails would again break from the weight[8].

Without financial backing, Trevitchick abandoned his plans to develop a steam locomotive, and started to take various odd jobs. He eventually died of poverty on April 22nd, 1833. Facing the prospect of a pauper's funeral, a group of local factory workers had heard the news and raised enough funds to provide a decent funeral, and is buried in the Dartford churchyard[9].