Saturday, 25 April 2015

Richard Trevithick- a forgotten giant of the Industrial Revolution

Most people have heard of famous Cornishman Sir Humphry Davy, who was born in Penzance in 1778 (posting of 18 October 2010), but few outside Cornwall have heard of Richard Trevithick, inventor and mining engineer, who was born seven years earlier in the mining heartland of Camborne.
Water has always been the enemy of the Cornish miner. Relatively shallow workings could be drained by sloping adits but if the water was below adit level it had to be pumped, using horse power or waterwheels, but as the mines became deeper the conversion of coal into power to work pumps became highly desirable, and this led to the development of the famous Cornish beam engine, the ruins of which dot the landscape of the old mining areas.

The first steam engine, developed by Thomas Newcomen around 1712, introduced steam into a cylinder. The steam was then condensed, creating a partial vacuum which sucked water from a sump at the bottom of the mine. The Newcomen engine was widely used in the 18th century, but it was very inefficient as much heat was lost when condensing the steam, as this cooled the cylinder. This 'atmospheric' engine was gradually replaced after 1775 by an improved design, invented by James Watt, in which the steam was condensed in a separate condenser.

Trevithick statue, Camborne
Richard Trevithick, at 6ft 2 inches (188 cm) tall and powerfully built, was known as "The Cornish Giant". His great contribution to deep mining was the pioneering of the use of high pressure steam, made possible by improvements in boiler technology, which could move the piston in the steam engine and vastly improve its efficiency. At the turn of the 19th century his engines started to replace the old atmospheric engines, and he also built the first full-size steam road locomotive in 1801 and demonstrated it by successfully carrying 6 passengers up Fore Street in Camborne and then continuing up Camborne Hill to the nearby village of Beacon. This first demonstration of transportation powered by steam was the inspiration of the Cornish folk song "Camborne Hill".


Trevithick's achievements at the time were often overshadowed by others; his abilities were scarcely acknowledged, financial reward for his efforts was practically non-existent, and he died in extreme poverty in 1833. However in recent years his work and inventions have become internationally acknowledged and he is now regarded as the father of the steam locomotive. He is still revered in Camborne, and each year Trevithick Day honours his memory with a street festival which celebrates the industrial heritage of the Camborne area.

Barbara and I took the train to Camborne this morning, and below are a few images of the festivities.

Parade of the Bal Maidens




More on Cornish Mining
More on Cornwall

1 comment:

  1. As a Cornish person, born in the same town (Redruth) as Trevithick, I am fed up with the media's ignorance of the fact that he was the true inventor of the steam locomotive, and not Stephenson. Trevithick pioneered the use of high pressure steam, without this, the modern steam locomotive could not exist. Historians, please put the record straight!


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