No one uses the power of steam much today, but steam once drove trains, ships, factories and the entire industrial revolution.
Letting Off Steam. It might surprise you to hear that an ancient Greek called Hero invented the steam engine in about AD 50. The ancient Greeks weren’t especially impressed with it, though, and couldn’t really see its potential for moving things about. So they forgot about it.
It was another 1,650 years before Thomas Savery came up with another steam engine, a steam pump, for pumping water out of mines. Unfortunately it had a tendency to blow up. In 1712 Thomas Newcomen built a better one that didn’t explode so often, but it was still pretty inefficient. Over the 1760s and 70s Scottish inventor James Watt improved on these earlier versions, and his one was so good that he’s become famous for it. But Watt’s were still mainly used for pumping water.
In 1804 Richard Trevithick tested out a steam engine that moved, but he didn’t have much success with it. George Stephenson was the inventor of the first really good moving steam engine. Initially these locomotives were used for hauling heavy goods from mines and quarries.
In 1829 his steam engine, Rocket, won a competition run by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway to find a locomotive that could carry goods and passengers. Rocket could pull a coach full of passengers at 39 km/h, and there were no cancellations!
Train victim no. 1: George Stephenson’s Rocket was responsible for the first train fatality. It ran over and killed MP William Huskisson at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 as the MP made to cross the track to speak to the prime minister.
Trains have moved on a lot in the last 180 years. A French TGV train became the fastest train on tracks in April 2007, reaching a speed of 356 mph (574.8 km/h).
Going really fast has its advantages, and it can be exhilarating, but there is an undeniable charm about steam trains, which is why them are still a number of steam train services running around the UK. Take a trip on a old steam train and a modern train and record your experiences. How did they differ?