21 February 1804: Pen-y-Darren locomotive steams into history
Trevithick’s invention pulls 10 tonnes of iron for 10 miles
At the turn of the 19th century, south Wales was in a frenzy. The industrial revolution was in full swing; all the talk was of coal and iron. At night, furnaces blazed in the darkness. Everywhere there was noise and motion, trams, horses and people, servants at the temple of the new industrial capitalism.
At the centre of all this excitement was an Englishman called Samuel Homfray, who had founded the Pen-y-Darren Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil. Homfray was open to innovation, and in 1802 he engaged a Cornish inventor, Richard Trevithick, to build a high-pressure steam engine to drive a hammer. Trevithick’s real interest, though, lay in building steam locomotives. Under Homfray’s supervision, he tried mounting the engine on wheels.
The 1st Duke of Clarence pays the price for crossing his brother, Edward IV, in this illustration Homfray liked what he saw so much that he bought the patent. Then he made a 500-guinea bet with a rival ironmaster, Richard Crawshay, wagering that his new locomotive could pull 10 tonnes of iron along the Merthyr Tydfil tramway, a distance of almost 10 miles. A date was set: 21 February 1804. And in its way, it deserves to be remembered as one of the most influential moments in history.
By the time that Trevithick’s locomotive had been prepared for its big test, a large crowd had assembled to watch the great moment. The iron was loaded onto five wagons, while 70 men also boarded the train, among them Homfray, Crawshay, various engineers and a government inspector.
Steam went up, the wheels turned – and they were off. Underneath, some of the tramway’s plates buckled and cracked under the weight of the train. But they kept moving. Four hours later, the train eased to a stop. Homfray had won his bet, and the history of transport would never be the same again.
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Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries
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21 February 1862
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21 February 1907
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21 February 1938
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21 February 1939
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