Contributions to the Biography of Richard Trevithick - Richard Edmonds, 1859

Contributions to the Biography of RICHARD TREVITHICK, C.E.

A distinguished man of old, to whom no statue had been raised, observed that he would rather men should ask, why a statue was not erected to him, than why it was. So, to the honour of Trevithick, the public are now inquiring why no account of his life and inventions has yet appeared, whilst persons who have done comparatively nothing for mankind have been rescued from oblivion by eminent biographers. One of the reasons, doubtless, is, that Trevithick was scarcely known except by his works, and few writers could produce a popular memoir out of such materials, unrelieved by those interesting personal details which constitute the very soul of biography. By his discoveries in the generation and application of steam-power, he has perhaps done more for commerce and manufacture than any individual of the present century.

The Institution of Civil Engineers has offered a prize for a memoir of Trevithick, which has not yet been claimed, although much has been published, in a fragmentary form, respecting him and his inventions. To these fragments I will now, from unpublished letters and other documents in my possession, make some interesting additions. I begin with a letter written by the late Mr. Michael Williams, one of the Members of Parliament for West Cornwall, to a gentleman then collecting materials for a memoir.

" TREVINCE, NEAR TRURO, 5th January, 1853.

"DEAR SIR,—I am favoured with your letter of the 31st ulto., enclosing one from Mr. Francis Trevithick of the 24th idem., and have much pleasure in complying with your joint request to the best of my ability. I was well acquainted with the late Mr. Richard Trevithick, having had frequent occasion to meet him on business, and to consult him professionally; and I am gratified in having the present opportunity of bearing testimony to his distinguished abilities, and to the high estimation in which the Cornish engineers of the day then regarded him. I need scarcely say, that time has not lessened the desire, in the county especially, to do him justice: as a man of inventive mechanical genius, few, if any, have surpassed him, and Cornwall may well be proud of so illustrious a son. At this distance of time, I can scarcely speak with sufficient exactness for your purpose of the numerous ingenious and valuable mechanical contrivances for which we are indebted to him; but in reference to his great improvements in the steam-engine, I have a more particular recollection, and can confidently affirm that he was the first to introduce the high-pressure principle of working, thus establishing a way to the present high state of efficiency of the steam-engine, and forming a new era in the history of steam-power. To the use of high-pressure steam, in conjunction with the cylindrical boiler, also invented by Mr. Trevithick, I have no hesitation in saying, that the greatly increased duty of our Cornish pumping-engines since the time of Watt is mainly owing; and when it is recollected that the working power now attained amounts to double or treble that of the old Boulton and Watt engine, it is impossible to over-estimate the benefit conferred by the late Mr. Trevithick on the mines of the county. The cylindrical boiler effected a saving of at least one-third in the quantity of coal previously required; and in 1812, I remember our house at Scorrier paying Mr. Trevithick £300, as an acknowledgment of the benefits received by us in our mines from this source alone. Mr. Trevithick's subsequent absence from the county, and perhaps a certain degree of laxity on his own part, in the legal establishment and prosecution of his claims, deprived him of much of the pecuniary advantage to which his labours and inventions justly entitled him; and I have often expressed my opinion that he was, at the same time, the greatest and the worst-used man in the county.

"As connected with one of the most interesting of my recollections of Mr. Trevithick, I must mention, that I was present, by invitation, at the first trial of his locomotive engine intended to run upon common roads, and of course equally applicable to tram and railways. This was, I think, about the year 1803; and the locomotive then exhibited was the very first worked by steam-power ever constructed.

"The great merit of establishing the practicability of so important an application of steam, and the superiority of the high-pressure engine for this purpose, will perhaps, more than any other circumstance, do honour through all times to the name of Trevithick. The experiments made on the public road close by Camborne were perfectly successful, and although many improvements in the details of such description of engines have been since effected, the leading principles of construction and arrangement are continued, I believe, with little alteration, in the magnificent railroad engines of the present day. Of his stamping engine for breaking down the Black-rock in the Thames, his river-clearing or dredging machine, and his extensive draining operations in Holland, I can only speak in general terms that they were eminently successful, and displayed, it was considered, the highest constructive and engineering skill. As a man of enlarged views and great inventive power, abounding in practical ideas of the greatest utility, and communicating them freely to others, he could not fail of imparting a valuable impulse to the age in which he lived, and it would be scarcely doing him justice to limit his claims as a public benefactor to the inventions now clearly traceable to him, important and numerous as these are. From my own impressions, I may say, that no one could bo in his presence without being struck with the originality and richness of his mind, and without deriving benefit from his suggestive conversation. His exploits and adventures in South America, in connection with the Earl of Dundonald, then Lord Cochrane, will form an interesting episode in his career; and, altogether, I am of opinion that the biography which you have undertaken will prove highly interesting and valuable, and I wish you every success in carrying it out.

"Believe me, my dear Sir, yours very faithfully,


"E. Watkins, Esq.,
"London and North Western Railway,
"Euston Station, London."

The locomotive referred to as "the very first worked by steam-power ever constructed," was also successfully tried in presence of tens of thousands of spectators in the summer of 1803 in London, in the vicinity of the present Bethlehem Hospital, and the neighbourhood or site of Euston Square. These trials were on the common roads; but shortly afterwards, "in 1804, one of these locomotive engines was in use at a mine in Merthyr Tydvil, in South Wales, and drew on a tramroad as many carriages as contained about 10½ tons of iron, travelling at the rate of 5½ miles an hour, for a distance of 9 miles, without any additional water being required during its journey."1 This high-pressure engine of Trevithick, by which carriages are impelled on common roads and on railways, is also applicable to every purpose for which the low-pressure or condensing engines of Watt are exclusively applied, and it has been thus characterised by the eloquent Mickleham: "It exhibits in construction the most beautiful simplicity of parts, the most sagacious selection of appropriate forms, their most convenient and effective arrangement and connection, uniting strength with elegance, the necessary solidity with the greatest portability, possessing unlimited power, with a wonderful pliancy to accommodate it to a varying resistance; it may, indeed, be called The steam-engine" Mr. Hebert, from whose work2 I have taken this extract, adds: "Such admirable combinations of inventive skill were never before contained in the specification of a patent;" and Mr. Clarke observes, that "In the establishment of the locomotive, in the development of the powers of the Cornish engine, and in increasing the capabilities of the marine engine, there can be no doubt that Trevithick's exertions have given a far wider range to the dominion of the steam-engine than even the great and masterly improvements of James Watt."3

Trevithick's Early Life (1771-1816).—Richard Trevithick was born on the 13th of April, 1771, in the parish of lllogan in Penwith, the most western hundred of Cornwall. His father, being the purser of several mines, could have given him the best education that the neigbourhood afforded; but our young engineer had no taste for school exercises, and being the only son who survived childhood, was allowed by his parents to spend his time as he pleased, so that most of his boyhood was passed in strolling over the mines amidst which he lived, in observing their engines and machinery, and in conversing with the miners, engineers, and others, who could give him information about them. Yet, even in this manner, with scarce any schooling, and with no books, he acquired such practical knowledge of steam-engines and mine-machinery, that long before he attained his majority he was, to the utter astonishment of his father, appointed engineer to several mines. The father begged the mine-agents from whom the appointment had proceeded to reconsider what they had done, as he was sure his son could not, at so early an age, be qualified for so responsible an office. But having had sufficient proof to the contrary, they merely thanked him for his disinterested advice. In 1792, Trevithick was employed to test one of Hornblower's engines at Tincroft mine, near Redruth, and reported its duty to be 16 to 10 over Watt's. Prior to this, he had, with the assistance of William Bull (a workman previously employed in erecting Watt's engines in Cornwall), constructed several engines which did not come within the reach of Watt's patent.4 Thus, at a very early age, Trevithick's great genius and self-acquired talents were practically acknowledged by the most competent authorities in Cornwall. Had he been, throughout his boyhood, a due attendant at school, he would doubtless have written a better hand and better English, and have qualified himself for succeeding his father in the lucrative office of a mine-purser. Fortunately, however, for mankind, his object was not to get rich, but to cultivate his inventive faculties (which he could not have done at school), and to let the world have the benefit of them, careless of his own personal interests. This, indeed, was throughout his life a prominent point of his character; and by neglecting to keep his discoveries within his own breast until patents for them had been obtained, others have had the credit for inventions suggested originally by himself.

On attaining his full stature, he stood more than six feet high, well formed, and without any tendency to corpulence. His muscular strength was such, that he could lift two blocks of tin, placed one on the other, weighing seven cwts. He was unassuming, gentle, and pleasing in his manners; his conversation was interesting, instructive, and agreeable, arid he possessed great facility in expressing himself clearly on all subjects. Occasionally, a blunt expression would fall from him, particularly when obliged to go through an explanation a second time, on account of the inattention or dulness of his hearer; on such occasions he would sometimes exclaim, or rather ask (for he had no idea of giving offence), "How are you so dull?" His dress was plain and neat, and his general appearance such, that a stranger passing him in the street would have taken him to be some distinguished person.

His duties as engineer required him frequently to visit Mr. Harvey's iron-foundry at Hayle, who invited him to his house and introduced him to his daughter, Miss Jane Harvey. A mutual attachment was the result, and they were married on the 7th of November, 1797. Her brother, the late Mr. Henry Harvey, succeeded to the foundry, and became the most enterprising merchant in the west of Cornwall; to him the western part of the creek of Hayle is indebted for its extensive weirs and quays, and its vast reservoir, with tide-gates for clearing the mouth of the river from the sand, which would otherwise choke it. All these works were constructed on a sandy plain, covered by the sea at every tide.

After their marriage they lived at Plane-an-guary in Redruth, for a few months; then at Camborne, for ten years; afterwards in London, for two years; next at Penponds, in the parish of Camborne, for five or six years, at the house of his mother; and afterwards at Penzance, from which town he sailed for Peru on the 20th of October, 1816, leaving behind him his wife, four sons, and two daughters, all of whom are still living—Mrs. Trevithick being now (July, 1862) in her 91st year, and in the enjoyment of excellent health. His two youngest sons adopted the profession of their father, and have acquired considerable distinction as civil engineers.

Whilst in London in 1816, preparing for his departure for South America, his portrait—a good likeness—was taken by Linnell. This half-length oil-painting (24 by 20 inches) has lately been presented to the South Kensington Museum, where it is suspended among the portraits of distinguished men—a painted copy and a photographic copy having been given in exchange for it. From this picture, and from a post-mortem plaster cast, Mr. Neville Burnard, the Cornish sculptor, has made a marble bust, plaster copies of which adorn various institutions.

Most of his important discoveries were made before his departure for Peru. In 1802, while residing at Camborne, he, in conjunction with Mr. Andrew Vivian, who supplied the pecuniary means, took out the patent for his celebrated steam-engine, and, in the same year, erected a small one "at Marazion, which was worked by steam of at least 30 pounds on the square inch above atmospheric pressure. In 1804, he introduced his celebrated and valuable wrought-iron cylindrical boilers, now universally used in this county… . In 1811-1812, he erected a single-acting engine of 25-inches cylinder at Huel Prosper, in Gwithian, which, of course, had a cylindrical boiler, in which the steam was more than 40 lbs. on the square inch above atmospheric pressure; and the engine was so loaded that it worked full seven-eighths of the stroke expansively… . I believe (continues Mr. Kenwood, from whom I am quoting) I have now satisfactorily shown, that Mr. Woolf, instead of being the first to introduce the expansive action of steam in one cylinder, was positively preceded several years by Trevithick."5 Trevithick was the first who turned the eduction-pipe into the chimney, as stated by Mr. Gordon in his Treatise on Elementary Locomotion, by which means the draught in the chimney was greatly improved.6

Trevithick's attention had been engaged beneficially to the public on various other subjects besides the steam-engine, before his departure for Peru; but as they have been noticed in other publications,7 I will pass on to the introduction of his high-pressure engine into the mountains of South America.

Trevithick in South America (1816-1827).—Of his admirable steam-engine, patented in 1802, as already noticed, Trevithick had made a beautiful model—little dreaming, whilst making it, that it would be the means of introducing him into a new world for the exercise of his genius and engineering talents. Some very rich silver-mines in the mountains of Peru had been abandoned from the mere want of machinery to extract the water. Mr. Uvillè, a Swiss gentleman, came to England from Lima in 1811, for the purpose of ascertaining whether any steam-engines could be successfully used in the rare atmosphere of those high mountains, and if so, whether they could be conveyed thither. Receiving no encouragement, he was about to return in despair, when, by mere accident, he saw this elegant model of Trevithick's high-pressure engine exposed for sale in a shop in London. Instantly the vast capabilities and simplicity, the enormous power and great portability of the machine, flashed upon his mind, and excited the most confident expectations of accomplishing his object. With this working model he hastened back to Lima, tried it in the highest elevations, found it perfectly successful, and having formed a company, took a second voyage to England to procure the necessary engines. A second time he was reduced almost to despair, for Boulton and Watt, the most distinguished engineers of their time, assured him that it was impossible to make engines of sufficient power small enough to be carried over the Andes; but Trevithick revived his hopes by undertaking to construct nine steam-engines of his own invention, in sufficiently small parts, to be conveyed on the backs of mules from Lima to the mines of Pasco, a distance of about 150 miles. The "Wildman," South Sea whaler, in which these engines, with other materials, were shipped, sailed from Portsmouth on the 1st of September, 1814. From the invoice, still preserved, I find that four of these engines were for pumping, had cost very nearly £1400. each, and were each of thirty-three horse-power; four others were winding engines, each of eight horse-power, the price of each being £210.; the ninth was a portable steam-engine of eight horse-power, used for rolling, and cost £400. The freight of this cargo to Lima was £1500., and the insurance £2300. Trevithick contributed from his own purse a considerable portion of this outlay, for which, and for his services, a share of not less than one-fifth in the adventure was allotted to him. Mr. Uvill´ went to Lima with the engines, acccompanied by three Cornish engineers, one of whom was William Bull, Trevithick's earliest partner. The engines were safely landed—transported across the mountains,—and, on the 27th of July, 1816, the first steam-engine ever seen in South America was set to work at Santa Rosa, one of the mines at Pasco. The Lima Gazette of the 10th of August, 1816, in announcing this fact, says:——"We are ambitious of transmitting to posterity the details of an undertaking of such prodigious magnitude, from which we anticipate a torrent of silver that shall fill surrounding nations with astonishment."

On the 20th of October in the same year (1816), Trevithick sailed from Mount's-Bay in another South Sea whaler, with more machinery, and landed at Lima on the 6th of February following, where he was immediately presented to the Viceroy of Peru, and received the most flattering attention from the inhabitants. The Lima Gazette of 12th February (now before me), after noticing the completion of a second engine, with a detail of the wonderful effects produced, thus proceeds:—"To this agreeable intelligence, we must add that of the arrival at Callao of the whale-ship "Asp," from London, having on board a quantity of machinery for the Royal Mint, and for constructing eight steam-engines equal to those already erected in Pasco. But the most important intelligence is the arrival of Don Ricardo Trevithick, an eminent professor of mechanics, machinery, and mineralogy; inventor and constructor of the engines of the last patent, who directed in England the execution of the machinery now at work in Pasco. This professor, with the assistance of the workmen who accompany him, can construct as many engines as shall be wanted in Peru, without sending to England for any part of these vast machines."8 The following is an extract from a private letter of Trevithick on this occasion:—"The Lord Warden was sent from Pasco to offer me protection and to welcome me to the mines. They have a Court over the mines and miners the same as the Vice-Warden's Court in England, only much more respected and powerful. The Viceroy sent orders to the military at Pasco to attend to my call, and told me he would send whatever troops I wished with me. As soon as the news of our arrival had reached Pasco, the bells rang, and they were all alive, down to the lowest labouring miner, and several of the most noted men of property have arrived here (150 miles) on this occasion, and the Lord Warden has proposed erecting my statue in silver."

What treasures were yielded by the mines before the Civil Wars put a stop to them, I do not know; nor am I aware how Trevithick afterwards employed himself, although it appears that he joined Earl Dundonald (then Lord Cochrane), and was for some years with him in South America. At length, he returned to England, having crossed the Isthmus of Panama, encountering hairbreadth escapes, and extraordinary adventures, and landed in Falmouth, in complete destitution, on the 9th of October, 1827.9

Whilst with Lord Cochrane, he invented a most ingenious gun-carriage, of which, with its mounted gun, he showed me a beautiful model. By this invention "a single-decked ship will carry a greater number of guns on one deck than a double-decked ship on both decks, be worked with less than one-third of the hands, and the guns fired with precision five times as fast as they are at present." What has become of it, I cannot learn, nor whether it was ever tried in the navy. The plans and specifications are still in the possession of his family. So, also, are notes and maps which he made while crossing the Isthmus of Panama, of the best line in which a road or canal might be made to traverse it.

Trevithick's claims on his country.—The first thing to which Trevithick applied himself on his return from South America, was to replenish his purse. Justly considering himself entitled to remuneration from his country, he furnished my late father (his solicitor) with instructions for a petition to the House of Commons for that purpose. The petition was prepared accordingly in December, 1827, and the following are extracts from it:—

"That this kingdom is indebted to your Petitioner for some of the most important improvements in steam-engines, for which he has not been remunerated, and for which he has no prospect of being remunerated, except through the assistance of your Honourable House.

"That the duty performed by Messrs. Boulton and Watt's improved steam-engines in 1798 (as appears by a statement made by Davies Gilbert, Esq, and other gentlemen, associated for that purpose) averaged only 14½ millions pounds of water lifted one foot high by one bushel of coals, although a chosen engine of theirs, at Herland, under the most favourable circumstances, lifted 27 millions—the greatest duty ever performed, until your Petitioner's improvements were adopted, since which, the greatest duty ever performed has been 67 millions, being much more than double the former duty.

"That prior to the invention of your Petitioner's boiler, the most striking defect observable in every steam-engine was the form of the boiler, which in shape resembled a tilted waggon, the fire being applied under it, and the whole surrounded with mason-work. That such shaped boilers were incapable of supporting steam of a high temperature, and did not admit so much of the water to the action of the fire as your Petitioner's boiler does, and were also in other respects attended with many disadvantages.

"That your Petitioner directed his attention to the invention of a boiler which should be free from these disadvantages, and after having devoted much of his time, and nearly all his property, in the attainment of his object, at length succeeded in inventing and perfecting that which has since been generally adopted throughout the kingdom.

"That your Petitioner's invention consists principally in introducing the fire into the midst of the boiler, and in making the boiler of a cylindrical form, which is the form best adapted for sustaining the pressure of high steam.

"That the following very important advantages are derived from this invention. This boiler does not require half the materials, nor does it occupy half the space required for any other boiler; no mason-work is necessary to encircle it; accidents by fire can never occur, as the fire is entirely surrounded by water; and greater duty can be performed by an engine with this boiler (and with less than half the fuel) than has been accomplished by any engine without it. These great advantages render this small and portable boiler not only superior to all others used in mines and manufactories, but likewise the only one which can be used with success in steam-vessels or steam-carriages. The boilers in use prior to your Petitioner's, could never, with any degree of safety or convenience, be used for steam-navigation, as they required a protection of brick and mason-work to confine the fire with which they were surrounded, and still there was danger of accidents by fire resulting from the rolling and pitching of the ship.

"That, had it not been for your Petitioner's invention, the late important improvements in the use of steam could not have taken place, as none of the old boilers could have withstood a pressure of more than 6 pounds to the inch beyond the atmospheric pressure, whilst your Petitioner's is not, only very commonly worked at a pressure of 60 pounds to the inch, but is capable of withstanding a pressure of above 150 pounds to the inch.

"That as soon as your Petitioner had brought his invention into general use in Cornwall, and had proved to the public its immense utility, he was obliged, in 1816, to leave England for South America, to superintend extensive silver mines in Peru, from whence he did not return until October last. That at the time of his departure, the old boilers were rapidly falling into disuse, and when he returned, they had been generally replaced by his own.

"That the engines in Cornwall (which are more powerful than those used in any other part of the kingdom) have now your Petitioner's improved boilers, and it appears, from the monthly reports, that these engines, which, in 1798, averaged only 14½ millions, now average three times that duty with the same quantity of coals, making a saving to Cornwall alone, of about £100,000. per annum; and an engine at the Consolidated Mines, in November, 1827, performed 67 millions, which are 40 millions more than the duty performed by Boulton and Watt's chosen engine at Herland, as before mentioned.10

"That, but for your Petitioner's invention, the greater number of the Cornish mines, which produce nearly £2,000,000. per annum, must have been abandoned.

"That your Petitioner has also invented the iron stowage water-tanks and iron buoys, now in general use in His Majesty's Navy, and with merchant ships. That 25 years ago your Petitioner likewise invented the steam-carriage.

"That all the inventions above alluded to have proved of immense national utility, and your Petitioner has not been reimbursed the money he has expended in perfecting them.

"ST. ERTH, HAYLE, December, 1827."

The letter from Trevithick, enclosing the instructions for this petition, was dated the 20th of December, 1827, and contained the following postscript:—"I was at Dolcoath account on Monday, and made known to them my intention of applying to Government, and not to individuals, for remuneration. They are ready to put their signatures to the petition, and so will all the county."

Soon after the petition had been prepared, Trevithick met with a partner, who supplied him with the money he required for perfecting his never-ceasing inventions. This being all he wanted, the petition was never presented, and he gladly resumed the kind of life which he had pursued for so many years with so much success in Camborne, when in partnership with Mr. Vivian. Thus assisted, he obtained a patent in 1831, for "an improved steam-engine;" and another, in the same year, for "a method or apparatus for heating apartments;" and a third on the 22nd of September, 1832, for "improvements on the steam-engine, and in the application of steam-power to navigation and locomotion." This was the last patent he took out, and "he died at Dartford, in Kent, on the 22nd of April, 1833, leaving no other inheritance to his family but the grandeur of his name and the glory of his works."11

Whilst he lived he was but little known, being so exclusively occupied with his inventions, that, independently of his literary disqualifications, he had neither time nor inclination to be the herald of his own achievements, and therefore some of his great inventions were (particularly during his eleven years' absence in South America), strangely ascribed to others. But as he was clearly the inventor of the high pressure steam-engine, of the steam-carriage, and of that boiler, without which (or a modification of which), no steam-boat could have crossed the Atlantic, he has undoubtedly contributed more to the physical progress of mankind than any other individual of the present century.

Originally published in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, October 1859, and reprinted as an appendix to The Land's End District, 1862.