The English railway engineers George Stephenson (1781-1848) and his son, Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), pioneered in steam railway engineering, which led directly to the onset of the railway age in Britain.
George Stephenson was born on July 9, 1781, at Wylam, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He followed his father's trade of colliery engineman with its concomitant migratory life. A natural mechanical bent led him to positions of increasing responsibility. In 1804 at Killingworth Colliery he took charge of a winding engine belonging to the Grand Allies, an important group of coal masters who controlled the pits. By 1812 Stephenson had become engine wright at Killingworth and was charged with maintaining the Grand Allies' machinery at all their collieries. He also acted as an adviser to other colliery owners. In 1815 he invented a safety lamp for miners at about the same time as did Sir Humphry Davy.
During the Napoleonic Wars coal masters became increasingly interested in developing the steam railway locomotive invented by Richard Trevithick in 1804. In 1813 Stephenson was commissioned to build a locomotive for Killingworth, and his first engine, the Blucher, ran in 1814. In design he closely followed the successful Blenkinsop and Murray rack locomotives, except that he depended solely on adhesive weight to draw a worthwhile load. Over the next years Stephenson laid down a number of new colliery railways and made improvements on the locomotives as well as on the rails. In 1821 he was named engineer on the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
Stephenson had only a most elementary education and seemingly lacked the capacity to grasp concepts, but he had great powers of observation, keen mechanical intuition, and remarkable foresight for the potential of the steam railway. His only son, Robert, was born on Oct. 16, 1803, at Willington Quay near Newcastle and was intensively schooled from earliest youth. He made the detailed survey for the Stockton and Darlington line for his father. This railway was constructed under George Stephenson's direction in 1822-1825 and employed locomotives which were built at the engine works he established in Newcastle in 1823 as Robert Stephenson and Company.
In 1824 George became engineer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway project. That year Robert left for South America to direct mining operations in Colombia, where he remained until 1827. During his absence George thoroughly bungled the survey and estimate for the Liverpool and Manchester line, which led to the denial of parliamentary authority for the line in 1825, but the following year it was granted. In 1827 Robert became manager of the Newcastle works. In 1829 the directors of the Liverpool and Manchester line offered a prize for the best locomotive. At the famous Rainhill trials held in October, the Rocket, designed by Robert with a multitube boiler, easily won the day. The following year the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened.
The next major undertaking in which George Stephenson was concerned was the Grand Junction Railway, connecting Liverpool and Manchester with Birmingham, which was authorized in 1833. The survey and the northern half of the line were made by Joseph Locke, the Stephensons' ablest assistant. On the southern half George Stephenson again proved to be incompetent, and he was replaced by Locke in 1835. On the London and Birmingham Railway, authorized in 1832, Robert Stephenson had sole control of the survey; he became engineer in chief in 1833 and completed the line in 1838. George learned his lesson, and on important lines laid out between 1835 and 1840 he applied his rule-of-thumb genius to the choice of route, leaving details and organization to assistants.
In 1843 George Stephenson retired to Chesterfield, Derbyshire. He was the first president (1847-1848) of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He died on Aug. 12, 1848, at Chesterfield.
Robert Stephenson's engineering ability was most clearly shown in the great tubular bridges of unprecedented size on the Chester and Holyhead Railway, designed and built from 1845 to 1850 under his supervision. He died in London on Oct. 12, 1859.
Further Reading on George and Robert Stephenson
George Stephenson, about whom literary battles raged over his alleged and disputed inventions for decades after his death, has occasioned several biographies. Samuel Smiles, The Life of George Stephenson (1857; new ed. 1864), is a classic. A definitive biography of his son is J. C. Jeaffreson, The Life of Robert Stephenson (1864; 2d ed. 1866). L. T. C. Rolt, The Railway Revoultion: George and Robert Stephenson (1962), shows great insight, and Michael Robbins, George and Robert Stephenson (1966), is a short, well-written account.
Additional Biography Sources
Beckett, Derrick, Stephensons' Britain, Newton Abbot, Devon;North Pomfret, Vt: David & Charles, 1984.
Robbins, Michael, George & Robert Stephenson, London:H.M.S.O., 1981.
Rolt, L. T. C., George and Robert Stephenson: the railway revolution, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977, 1960.