Dec 242018
 

Richard Trevithick by John Linnell, Science Museum, London 

It was Christmas Eve, 1801 and a large crowd had gathered in the Cornish town of Camborne. The stretch of road running up from Tehidy Road and along Fore Street was known as Camborne Hill, and the crowds watched in amazement as a noisy, steam-belching leviathan called ‘Puffing Devil’ moved slowly up the ascent, turned round, and then came back down again. The excitement of the occasion was described by a local cooper, Stephen Williams, who was to write later:
‘Twas a stiffish hill going from the Weith up to Camborne Beacon, but she went off like a little bird. When she had gone about a quarter of a mile, there was a roughish piece of road covered with loose stones; she didn’t go quite so fast, and as it was flood of rain and we were very squeezed together, I jumped off. She was going faster than I could walk, and went on up the hill about a quarter or half a mile farther, when they turned her and came back again to the shop.’

The event was commemorated in the song ‘Camborne Hill’:
Goin’ up Camborne Hill, coming down
Goin’ up Camborne Hill, coming down
The horses stood still;
The wheels went around;
Going up Camborne Hill coming down

It is a song still associated with Cornish prowess – especially on the Rugby field – and is one of the most lasting tributes to a man who died a pauper, and yet was a real pioneer of the Industrial Revolution. His name – Richard Trevithick – is little known nowadays, and as any schoolboy will tell you, the inventor of steam locomotion was not Trevithick but father-and-son George and Robert Stephenson.

Actually, that is not correct. The Stephenson ’Rocket’ may be renowned the world over, whereas Trevithick’s ‘Catch me who can’ engine is hardly remembered. And yet it was the first in the world to carry fee-paying passengers, in 1808. The ‘Rocket’ is rightly famous for having won the Rainhill Trials held to decide the best design for an engine to run along the Liverpool-Manchester line. Yet that was in 1829, a quarter of a century after Trevithick had pioneered the use of a high-pressure steam engine to provide locomotive power. Trevithick’s invention came first, and he deserves far more credit for his inventiveness and his dogged determination. Indeed, he can be seen as one of the first of that breed of heroic failures which litter the story of modern progress.

I am featuring him as one of my ‘forgotten heroes’ in a book to be published by Pen & Sword, probably under the title of “Georgian Greats – Unsung Heroes of the (Industrial) Revolution” – or some such. I intend to showcase a couple of dozen individuals who, but for a quirk of fate, would have been household names in the vein of Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt et al. The spotlight often dazzles us, but in doing so hides the achievements of men on the side-lines – men like Trevithick. Nowadays we may talk about ‘first mover advantage’ whereas history tells us that it is not the man who is first with his ideas who wins – it is the man who can market them.

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