Trevithick Richard by Linnell

Richard Trevithick's 1816 portrait by John Linnel.

Richard Trevithick (1771–1833) was a English engineer who made fundamental developments regarding the steam locomotive. Although Trevithick had a brilliant mind for engineering he was only just literate, and also had failure after failure when it came to the businesses he set-up.

Technological AchievementsEdit

Trevithick is best known for his invention of the high-pressure steam engine just prior to 1800, in 1797. At the time a Scottish inventor named James Watt had made the most recent advances in steam engine design, yet these engines were far too large to be used in mobile vehicles. What was needed was an engine that was compact, and lightweight, enough to be placed on rails yet powerful enough to pull heavy loads. Watt, a more restrained inventor, thought that this was not possible with the materials at hand. Trevithick proved him wrong with 30 high-pressure steam engines over his career.

In March, 1802, Trevithick, with his cousin Andrew Vivian, took out a patent for high-pressure steam engines. This historic event was over the first steam carriage Trevithick had built, and operated, in 1801. Two years later, Trevithick constructed his second steam carriage that he drove through the streets of London, England. Also in that year, he built the very first steam railway locomotive at the Pen-y-Darren Iron Works, in South Wales. The man that owned the iron works, Samuel Homfray, placed a bet; on the 21st of February, 1804, the locomotive — known today as the Pen-y-Darren locomotive — won the event pulling 10 tons of iron and 70 fair-paying passengers along 10 miles (16 kilometers) of tramway. Trevithick built a second, similar, locomotive in 1805, in Gateshead. In the same year, he built a high-pressure steam engine powered iron-rolling mill and also adapted the high-pressure design to propel a barge via paddle-wheels. Later, in 1806, Trevithick produced the very first steam dredgers.

In 1808 Trevithick made his third locomotive Catch Me Who Can. He placed this locomotive on a piece of circular track in London for a demonstration. To ride in the modified coaches that it pulled, Trevithick charged a shilling — virtually a day's pay for the average working man. Unsurprisingly, this failed financially and Trevithick was forced to abandon it. Sadly, soon after this, Trevithick abandoned rail vehicles altogether due to noticing that even his lightweight locomotives crushed the brittle iron rails under their weight. However, by 1812 he had expanded the list of machines using his high-pressure steam engines to a threshing machine for a farm.

With the smaller types of his engines Trevithick built the boiler and engine as one, but a more important design of Trevithick's was his single internal flue type he made out of wrought-iron; for this type is world famous under the name "Cornish Type". The latter was used together with another famous engine, the Cornish pumping-engine, which, along with local engineers, Trevithick improved to be twice as efficient as Watt's best. Therefore the Watt Type was superseded.


Richard Trevithick was born in part of Illogan (that is now Tregajorran), Cornwall, England, on the 13th of April, 1771. He died at the age of 62 in Dartford, Kent, England. He was quick to a temper and was known to make impulsive decisions.

When Trevithick was a boy he attended Illogan's village school when Cornwall was still a great tin-mining county. Trevithick was not the brightest student, in fact “disobedient, slow and obstinate” were his schoolmaster's words, and his father, who managed a mine, thought his son to be a loafer. However, Trevithick had a keen mind for mechanical engineering that, at the age of 19, lead him to secure a job as engineer to several Cornish ore mines. Seven years later Trevithick married Jane Harvey — the Harveys were a prominent engineering family — and they had six children. Francis, one of their children, later wrote a biography of his father. Francis was also involved in steam transportation; he was a superintendent for the London and North Western Railway (L&NWR).

After inventing, and building many of, high-pressure steam engines, Trevithick patented a type of iron tank, and started a business to manufacture it in 1808. Sadly, his partner in the venture was untrustworthy and the business failed causing Trevithick to go into bankruptcy by 1811. In 1814, 9 of Trvithick's engines were ordered by a silver-mining company in Peru. This spurred Trevithick to think about the riches available in the Andes Mountains, and by 1816 he was sailing to South America. Trevithick returned moneyless eleven years later, in 1827, to see that in his leave other inventors had used his ideas on high-pressure steam engines to produce even more innovatory machines. Namely George Stephenson.

Richard Trevithick died six years later in poverty, thus he was buried in an unmarked grave.


  • Encyclopædia: "Trevithick, Richard". Encyclopædia Britannica Deluxe Edition (2010).
  • Book: The Compete Book of Locomotives. Written by Colin Garratt and published by Hermes House. ISBN: 978-1-84477-022-9
  • (For information regarding county borders.)

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