Dave Village

Richard Trevithick's steam locomotive

On 21 February 1804, the world's first ever railway journey ran 9 miles from the ironworks at Penydarren to the Merthyr-Cardiff Canal, South Wales.

It was to be several years before steam locomotion became commercially viable, meaning Richard Trevithick and not George Stephenson was the real father of the railways.

In 1803, Samuel Homfray brought Richard Trevithick to his Penydarren ironworks at Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. Homfray was interested in the high pressure engines that the Cornishman had developed and installed in his road engines. He encouraged Trevithick to look into the possibility of converting such an engine into a rail-mounted locomotive to travel over the newly laid tramroad from Penydarren to the canal wharf at Abercynon.

It would appear that Trevithick started work on the locomotive in the autumn of 1803 and, by February 1804, it was completed. Tradition has it that Richard Crawshay, owner of the nearby Cyfarthfa ironworks, was highly sceptical about the new engine, and he and Homfray placed a wager of 500 guineas each with Richard Hill (of the Plymouth ironworks) as to whether or not the engine could haul ten tons of iron to Abercynon, and haul the empty wagons back.

The first run was on 21 February. Unfortunately, on the return journey a bolt sheared, causing the boiler to leak. The fire then had to be dropped and the engine did not get back to Penydarren until the following day. This gave Crawshay reason to claim that the run had not been completed as stipulated in the wager, but it is not known if this was ever settled!

The engine was, in fact, too heavy for the rails. Later, it would serve as a stationary engine driving a forge hammer at the Penydarren works.

The replica locomotive on display in the National Waterfront Museum today was built working from Trevithick's original documents and plans (now in the National Museum of Science and Industry). It was inaugurated in 1981 and, ironically, presented the exact same problem as the original engine – it too broke the rails on which it ran!

We cannot underestimate the importance of Trevithick's locomotive. In 1800, the fastest a man could travel over land was at a gallop on horseback; a century later, much of the world had an extensive railway system on which trains regularly travelled at speeds of up to sixty miles per hour.

This remarkable transformation, a momentous occasion in world history, was initiated in south Wales in that February of 1804.