Since 1600s, carts pulled over oak rails or metal plates by human or animal power (or gravity), move heavy materials.

1780s, Watt's mechanics experiment with model steam carriage.


Cornish inventor Richard Trevithick

1803 high-pressure engine explosion.

1804 Trevithick steam engine pulled ten tons of iron plus 70 passengers nine miles. 

1808 Trevithick RR engine on display in London - "catch-me-who-can" - "mechanical power subduing animal speed"

1811 Trevithick bankrupt.

1825, top speed less than 4 mph.


George Stephenson –

First engine 1814. 


1825 Stockton & Darlington RR

steam engine for show; horse-powered cars for general transport. attracted attention of businessmen, engineers.

Doubt if steel wheels had enough traction on iron rails to make efficient transport.  

1829, Newcastle & Carlisle RR - horse-drawn cars.


First "modern" design locomotive -Rocket, George & Robert Stephenson.

1829 Rainhill trials, competition for new Liverpool & Manchester RR - 60 mile test.

Rocket improved boiler design, averaging 15 mph & up to 30 mph. Liverpool & Manchester RR opened 1830 - first RR to use only steam locomotives.

63 bridges, 2 tunnels, large swamp.

Stephensons' system "narrow gauge," four feet & eight inches between rails. 


Isambard Kingdom Brunel,

"broad gauge", seven feet between rails,

Great Western RR 1841 - speed records.


two incompatible systems - "battle of the gauges"

1845 Royal Commission

series of trials, Brunel's locomotive loads up to 80 tons at speeds averaging up to 60 mph - Stephensons' 50 tons at top speed of 55 mph – and overturned.

Royal Commission favor Stephenson - easier & cheaper to convert broad gauge to narrow than to change narrow gauge to broad.

By 1845 1,900 miles of narrow gauge RR in Britain, but only 275 miles of broad.

1846 Gauge Act favor of narrow gauge, but loophole for Brunel.  Brunel broad gauge trains, pulling 100 tons at average speeds of 60 mph.

broad gauge too expensive. 

After Brunel's death, converted to mixed gauge - added third rail at four feet, eight inch width - nightmare at junctions & switching yards.

1845 Britain just over 2000 miles RR track - 1852, over 7,500 miles, connect most major cities, freight traffic.

Passenger traffic; "I can't imagine anything better, if only you could be sure that you wouldn't be blown to Hell or hurled into the air in a thousand pieces at any moment."

Duke of Wellington complained that RRs enabled "the lower orders to go uselessly wandering about the country."

Mail, army troops

stimulating development of engineering,

RR itself uses iron, bricks, coal & timber.

1840s era of railway mania.