My history hero: Richard Trevithick (1771-1833)

Chosen by television presenter Michael Mosley

John Linnell's 1816 portrait of Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick. His high-pressure steam engine

This article was first published in the January 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Richard Trevithick was a titan of the industrial revolution, best known for pioneering two inventions that would transform the lives of millions across the world: the high-pressure steam engine, and the locomotive-hauled railway journey.
Despite his undoubted genius, Trevithick’s life was plagued by disputes, financial crises and sheer bad luck. As a result, he has received far less recognition than many of his contemporaries, such as James Watt and Matthew Boulton, and died penniless in a Dartford pub before being buried in an unmarked grave.

When did you first hear about Richard Trevithick?

As recently as 10 years ago, when a colleague lent me a biography of him. I was amazed that I’d never heard of someone who had contributed so much to science. But it seems that I was far from the only person to be oblivious to his achievements. Mention steam engines to most people, and they’ll come up with names like James Watt and Robert Stephenson. Trevithick was, and remains, grossly underestimated.

What was his finest hour?

For me, it’s got to be the day, in 1804, when one of his locomotives pulled a train carrying coal along a tramway in Merthyr Tydfil. This was the first successful locomotive-hauled railway journey in history, and it was a landmark event in the industrial revolution. This was the moment that people truly began to wake up to the enormous potential of the railways.

What made him a hero?

It has to be his creation of the world’s first high-pressure steam engine, the incredible piece of technology that powered that journey in Merthyr Tydfil. Trevithick’s engine was vastly superior to what had gone before – most notably James Watt’s atmospheric engine. While Watt’s invention was unwieldy and ultimately a dead-end technology, Trevithick’s engine was compact, light and powerful enough to carry its own weight – even with a carriage attached.
I don’t think it’s stretching it to say that it was the invention that unleashed power on this planet. I recently worked out that a modern household would need about 50 full-time slaves to produce the power we consume. We’ve got Trevithick to thank for the fact that we don’t need those slaves!

What sort of person was he?

He was extroverted and an enormous enthusiast. But he was also a bit of an outsider – even something of a tragic figure. Things never seemed to quite work out for him, and his life was beset by financial crises. Even his greatest achievement – the locomotive-hauled journey at Merthyr Tydfil – was tarnished by the fact that the rails broke because the metal wasn’t strong enough to support the locomotive. As a result, people didn’t at first take the technology seriously.
By challenging Watt’s technology, Trevithick also found himself up against some influential vested interests. Watt had the ear of some very powerful people so, when it came to a PR battle, Trevithick was always going to come off second best.

Do you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Not really – which is what makes him so interesting! Having said that, I guess, like him, I’m a bit of a dreamer who loves to look up at the stars and think, “what if?”

If you could meet Trevithick, what would you ask him?

First of all, I’d like to tell him that, despite all the problems he faced, his work made an enormous difference to Britain and the wider world. Then I’d ask him, if he was in touch with modern engineering, what would he be dreaming about inventing now? I’d love to know what he sees as the future of power in the UK.
Michael Mosley was talking to Spencer Mizen. He is a broadcaster who has presented BBC TV series including The Story of Science and Inside the Human Body