Books have been written about him, poems dedicated to him, statues erected in his honour, plaques affixed to significant buildings and locations in his life, university libraries named after him. He even has his own festival. It’s time this blog offered its own stripped-down guide to the life of Richard Trevithick as this month sees the anniversary of both his birth in 1771 in the heart of Cornwall’s central mining district and his death far away to the east in 1833.
Known affectionately as ‘Cap’n Dick’ or ‘the Cornish giant’, Trevithick has always had a special fascination and place in Cornish memory. His reliance on practical experiment rather than theory, his physical strength, his prickly independence and his financial hopelessness somehow resonated with the Cornish psyche.
He was an inattentive schoolchild but taught himself engineering and mechanics to an advanced level for his times. By his twenties he was advising mine owners on their steam engines. In 1797 he married Jane Harvey, daughter of the founder of Harvey’s Foundry at Hayle, a connection from which he curiously gained little advantage. Meanwhile, his achievements can be summarised under three headings – the steam engine, steam locomotion and adventures in foreign parts.
Trevithick’s career with steam power began at a time when Cornish mines adventurers were looking to reduce their fuel costs and escape the payments they were making under Boulton and Watt’s steam engine patent. Various engineers came up with designs that improved on Watt’s engine, although they were hamstrung by legal actions until the patent ran out in 1800. However, it was Trevithick who was particularly associated with ‘high-pressure steam’. His engines eliminated the need for a separate condenser and allowed for a smaller cylinder. This generally reduced the weight and size of engines. Eventually, it led to the ‘Cornish engine’ of 1812. Thereafter, Cornish steam engines achieved levels of efficiency that were deemed impossible by the scientific theory of the time.
It was a logical step to take this more efficient, lighter engine and mount it on wheels. From 1801 to 1808 Trevithick came up with at least five versions of a steam locomotive. The first trial run at Camborne gave rise to the song ‘Going up Camborne hill’. Unfortunately, this vehicle met a sorry end on the road to Tehidy, where Sir Francis Basset was eagerly waiting to see it. After overturning, its attendants had retired to a convenient hostelry. Unwisely they left the fire burning. The boiler ran dry, overheated and everything flammable was consumed in flames.
Other attempts followed – in London, at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, at Penydarren ironworks in south Wales and again in London. In the last three of these the engine ran on rails. The device worked although the rails still buckled under the weight.
Trevithick spent many years adventuring and inventing in foreign parts. From 1808 to 1810 he was in London, involved in various schemes mainly connected to the river and the sea – a tunnel under the Thames, floating docks, a ship propelled by water jets, iron cargo containers, screw propellers and an early version of a turbine for example. None of these could be turned into lucrative money-spinners however and, after suffering from a bout of typhus and being declared bankrupt, he returned to Cornwall and to the steam engine.
In 1816 he left his seemingly incredibly patient wife and six children to sail to South America and Peru’s silver mines. As was his tendency he soon fell out with associates. Moreover, mining in South America was at this time severely disrupted by the wars of independence from Spanish rule. At one stage Trevithick served with the army of Simon Bolivar, the South American liberator. By 1822 he had left Peru and travelled through Central America to Costa Rica. On the journey he had almost been drowned and narrowly escaped being bitten by an alligator. This Central American venture also proved to be a disappointment and Trevithick found himself in 1827 penniless in Cartagena, Columbia. By an odd coincidence the railway engineer and inventor, and Trevithick’s rival, Robert Stephenson, was also in that port. Stephenson lent Trevithick £50 for his voyage home. Late that year Trevithick finally re-joined his family after an absence of 11 years.
Trevithick ended his days at a foundry in Dartford in Kent, experimenting with jet propulsion and designing stronger boilers. But in his later years he began to be plagued by breathing problems. In 1833 he contracted pneumonia and died at his lodgings. Outside Cornwall Trevithick’s achievements have tended to be overshadowed by the success of the Stephensons in developing the early railway. However, now we are nearing the end of the fossil fuel era, one of its early heroes is more widely receiving the proper respect he deserves.