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STEM GLAM GALLERY: George Stephenson

This week, we are going back in time to rediscover a talented engineer, George Stephenson, the ‘Father of Railways.’ While Stephenson did not invent the steam locomotive, he was the first person to build a fully-functioning steam locomotive, and made significant improvements to the designs of the steam locomotive throughout his career. He also built the first railway that was solely machine-powered, invented a safety lamp for minors, and created the standard rail gauge that is still used worldwide today.

Here are three interesting facts to see why he’s admirable.

1. He had no formal education.

Stephenson was born as the second child of a working class family, to Robert and Mabel. His parents had no money to send him to school; and at the age of 17, he started working at a coal mine to operate a Newcomen atmospheric-steam engine that was used to pump out a coal mine at Newcastle upon Tyne. His curiosity aroused by the Napoleonic war news, Stephenson enrolled in night school to learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

Although he had proven his excellent engineering skills through his projects, Stephenson’s lack of formal education raised some doubts about his invention of the safety lamp, mainly by Humphry Davy, the scientist who happened to be working on the same safety lamp. Davy could not believe that a uneducated person could come up with the same solution he had and even before him, so he rounded up some supporters and accused Stephenson of stealing his idea. After some dispute, the case was finally closed when a local committee of enquiry gathered in support of Stephenson and proved that he had been working separately on the lamp. Stephenson was then awarded £1,000 for his invention. However, Davy and his supporters refused to accept the findings till the end.

2. He had a thirst for learning and improvement.

Knowing the value of education, Stephenson sent his son to school and often spent the evenings doing homework with his son, learning together with him.

Even after successfully building the first fully-functioning steam engine, Stephenson was not satisfied with his creation and continuously worked to improve his engine’s power and efficiency. In the subsequent years, he built more and better locomotives for his company at Killingworth. In 1829, his locomotive ‘Rocket’ won the famous competition at Rainhill to find the best kind of locomotive to pull heavy loads over long distances.

3. He slowly built his reputation through his successes.

Stephenson’s talent was first recognized when he successfully solved a problem with a Newcomen engine in a mine. The wealthy businessmen, who owned the mine, were so impressed with Stephenson’s abilities that they immediately hired him as an engineer. Thus, for the next ten years at Killingworth Colliery, Stephenson undertook many different experiments and projects relating to steam engines, locomotives and rails.

In 1813, he built his first steam locomotive, the ‘Blucher’. With this success under his belt, Stephenson focused himself on building more powerful and efficient steam locomotives, as well as taking part in designing first public railway between the cities of Stockton and Darlington (1825) and Liverpool-Manchester (1830). With positive impressions from both of those projects, Stephenson became a popular engineer of railroad networks all over England, and designer of 16 types of steam engines.



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