Simanaitis Says

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ENGLISH INVENTOR RICHARD TREVITHICK had a novel idea: Why not use steam power to transport people? Here are tidbits on his 1801 steam carriage, a 21st-century recreation of its 1802 variant, and one reason this second carriage was built.

Richard Trevithick, 1771–1833, English inventor and mining engineer. Portrait by John Linnell, 1816.

Trevithick was born in what Wikipedia calls “the mining heartland of Cornwall.” Early in his career as a mining engineer, Trevithick sensed that steam could do more than operate stationary engines pumping water from mines. Enhanced power and lighter weight were the keys to steam’s transport applications.

Frenchman Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, 1725–1804, had already devised a rudimentary steam-powered wagon in 1789. However, it was designed to transport artillery, not people. This three-wheeled 2.8-ton fardier à vapeur (“steam dray”)  was capable of towing 4 tons, but only for stints of perhaps a quarter of an hour at around 2 1/4 mph.

Trevithick’s Motivation. Sigvard Strandh’s A History of The Machine suggests Trevithick had motivation to improve the Watt steam power concept: “Watt’s engine, just like Newcomen’s, was more or less integrated with a building, its heavy balance beam being supported by a solid pillar, usually of brick. One English mill-owner in the 1790s considered that steam-engine use would never spread if it did not become “as movable as a piece of furniture.” In 1801, Trevithick built a compact engine operating at ten times the Watt engine’s pressure and incorporated it into a steam carriage. 

Failure, Success, Celebration—And…. Strandh describes  Trevithick’s adventure: “On Christmas Eve, 1801, he was ready to test his steam-driven carriage. The trial took place outside Camborne, Trevithick’s home town, on an uphill (!) slope towards Beacon Hill, a little village on a hilltop. It was not successful. The boiler could not produce enough steam, and the carriage failed to puff up the hill.” 

“Three days later,” Strandh continues, “Trevithick tried again, now in the company of some merry friends. This time, the hill was conquered, and they actually reached Beacon Hill, despite damage to the carriage on the frozen, rutted road. Their triumph was celebrated with mulled drinks and stuffed goose at the local inn.”

Alas, Strandh notes, “Their carriage had been parked in a shed—but they had forgotten the fire under the boiler, so when they returned from their hearty repast, all they found was a heap of twisted scrap iron.” 

Trevithick’s London Steam Carriage. Wikipedia says Trevithick’s next effort was “the world’s first self-propelled passenger-carrying vehicle… …the London Steam Carriage was driven about 10 miles through the streets of London to Paddington and back via Islington, with seven or eight passengers, at a speed of 4–9 miles per hour, the streets having been closed to other traffic.” 

This occurred in July of 1803. What’s more, Wikipedia notes, “On a subsequent evening, Trevithick and his colleagues [do you suppose, the same “merry friends”?] crashed the carriage into some house railings and, as a result of this, plus lack of interest in the carriage by potential purchasers, and its demonstrations having exhausted the inventor’s financial resources, it was eventually scrapped, the engine being used in a mill which made hoops for barrels.”  

Image from A History of The Machine.

Wikipedia notes that the carriage’s 8-ft.-diameter driving wheels smoothed out road irregularities and helped “the fire from being extinguished from the shaking. A forked piston rod reduced the distance between the single cylinder and the crankshaft and was considered a singular innovation at the time.” 

Strandh notes that the carriage’s drive had a coupling gear that permitted disengagement when turning sharp bends. 

Curiously, Wikipedia notes that Trevithick may have put errors in his patent to discourage unlicensed copies: As drawn, the engine would have run only backwards; its water pump may not have functioned at all.

The London Steam Carriage’s 21st-Century Recreation. The Steam Car Club of Great Britain describes the 21st-century recreation built by Tom Brogden using the original drawings, corrected when necessary.

The latter-day London Steam Carriage. This and the following image from The Steam Car Club of Great Britain. See this YouTube for a video of its operation..

Brogden writes, “There was no drawing for the water tank although the machine clearly had one. Next door to [coachbuilder] Felton’s works was a brewery, hence the use of a beer barrel on the replica.”


Remember Trevithick’s engine ending up at a barrel mill? Brogden notes it was “making hoops for beer barrels.” 

I suspect a good time was had by those merry friends. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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