Rail, Steam, and Speed: The "Rocket" and the Birth of Steam Locomotion

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Overview

From October 6 through 14, 1829, in a small village just outside Liverpool, England, ten thousand spectators gathered to witness one of the most remarkable events of the Industrial Age: a battle among locomotives that became known as the Rainhill Trials. Five machines were entered in the competition: the horse-powered Cycloped attained a top speed of only five miles per hour, while Perseverence — which looked like a giant iron bottle standing upright atop four wagon wheels — creaked along at a walking pace. But the three-way race between Robert Stephenson's Rocket, Timothy Harworth's Sans Pareil, and the crowd favorite, John Braithwaite and John Ericson's Novelty, astonished the gathered crowds. The unfamiliar clank of machinery, huge billows of steam, and unprecedented speeds of thirty miles per hour thrilled the crowds during the trials'carnival-like atmosphere. The Rocket won the competition, though it had been claimed that the machine was not the superior locomotive. Rail, Steam, and Speed explains why and offers an absorbing account of the trials, people, and science that gave birth to steam locomotion.

The purpose of the trials had been to find a locomotive that could maintain a speed of ten miles per hour for a round trip totaling thirty-five miles, the distance separating Liverpool and Manchester, which were soon to be linked by the world's first passenger railway. But what was achieved during those nine days became a benchmark of the Industrial Revolution. Bringing the excitement of this great drama to life, Christopher McGowan introduces us to such pioneers as George Stephenson, who started as a colliery boy and finished as the father of the railways; John Ericsson, a Swedish Army officer who invented a new kind of locomotive in England but spent most of his life in the United States, where he built the Monitor for the Union Navy; and Richard Trevithick, whose eleven-year adventure in South America included winning and losing several fortunes, deserting Bolivar's army, and escaping the jaws of a crocodile. He encountered George Stephenson's son Robert in a Colombian hotel in one of the most bizarre meetings of the age.

But the real stars are the locomotives themselves. McGowan shows how locomotives work and how they were developed — from the gargantuan beam engines condensing low-pressure steam inside enormous cylinders to the small, high-pressure-driven engines of the maverick miner Trevithick. He adapted the engines to power road carriages, but atrocious roads led him to build an engine that could run on rails. And so was born the world's first steam locomotive and modern transportation.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Technology and Culture - Frederick C. Gamst
McGowan captures the genesis of the railway age.
Historian - Marsh Wilkinson Jones
An excellent resource for those who want to know more about the developments that led to the creation of the first locomotives.
Choice
This book, an excellent example of the genre... Highly recommended
Ink
A fascinating story that anyone with even the smallest interest in the steam locomotive will enjoy... a pleasurable and highly informative read.
Choice

This book, an excellent example of the genre... Highly recommended

Technology and Culture
McGowan captures the genesis of the railway age.

— Frederick C. Gamst

Historian
An excellent resource for those who want to know more about the developments that led to the creation of the first locomotives.

— Marsh Wilkinson Jones

Popular Science
You don't have to be a railroad fanatic to find this book fascinating.... The story of the trials themselves is delightful and readable. A surprising, but pleasing recommendation.
Ink
A fascinating story that anyone with even the smallest interest in the steam locomotive will enjoy... a pleasurable and highly informative read.
The Good Read
This is a narrative history at its best.
Library Journal
In October 1829, five entrants competed for the contract to supply motive power to Britain's new Liverpool and Manchester Railway. That competition, the technical developments leading up to it, and the later consequences are the basis of McGowan's history. McGowan provides biographical sketches of the major participants, such as the father-and-son team of George and Robert Stephenson, who not only won the competition but then went on to shape British railway development for the following three decades. McGowan, a retired professor of paleobiology, painstakingly explains the evolution of steam power, which made the competition possible. He describes how Richard Trevithick made the important leap from the huge atmospheric engines that pumped water from mines to the use of high-pressure steam that provided the power necessary for the development of steam locomotives. McGowan presents his technical descriptions in simple terms, but diagrams beyond his illustrations of the locomotives themselves would have clarified his engineering points. The book's narrow subject matter, though accessible to general readers, makes it most appropriate for libraries with larger railroad history collections.-Lawrence R. Maxted, Gannon Univ., Erie, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231134743
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 11/3/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.26 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher McGowan is the author of several books, including A Practical Guide to Vertebrate Mechanics; Dinosaurs, Spitfires, and Sea Dragons; The Raptor and the Lamb: Predators and Prey in the Living World; and The Dragon Seekers: The Discovery of Dinosaurs Durgaing the Prelude to Darwin. He recently retired from the Department of Paleobiology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, and is a professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Toronto.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

1. The sport of kings2. Lessons from the past3. The London challenge4. A man of principles5. Up from the mine6. Famous son of a famous father7. Rocket on trial8. The people's choice9. The dark house10. Winning day11. Triumph and tragedy12. Boom and bust13. Beginnings and endings

Columbia University Press

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