Many brilliant minds paved the way for the invention of the locomotive. In the First Century, a Greek mathematician and engineer known as Heron (or Hero) of Alexandria published a description aeolipile, a steam-powered device considered by some to be the first recorded steam engine. This device and similar devices invented in the centuries to follow were incapable of performing work; however, they were crucial to the study of hydraulics, pneumatics, and other scientific principles.
It was upon these principles that Thomas Newcomen and John Calley were able to construct the first commercially successful steam engine in 1712. Newcomen, a British inventor, got the idea after seeing a marginally successful “fire engine” built by engineer Thomas Savery for the purpose of lifting water out of a tin mine. Savery’s invention was somewhat effective but had a limited range of 30 feet below ground level. Newcomen, with the assistance of Calley, modified Savery’s design to make it more efficient, allowing water to be drawn into the engine’s pump cylinder and expelled into a pipe to the surface by the weight of the machinery.
Later, in 1781, the steam engine concept was improved upon again. James Watt, the Scottish inventor who would become known as “the father of the steam engine,” realized that the modern design wasted energy heating and cooling the cylinder. By introducing a condenser, Watt radically improved the engine’s power, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. Additionally, Watt adapted his engine to produce rotary motion – a historic step toward mechanical transportation.
In 1801, Richard Trevithick unveiled his “Puffing Devil,” a steam road locomotive capable of carrying up to six passengers. Three days after its first successful test run, the machine broke down while passing over a gully. Its operators abandoned it – fire still burning in the engine – and went into a nearby public house for roast goose and drinks. Meanwhile, the engine overheated and the “Puffing Devil” went up in flames.
Undiscouraged by this operator error, Trevithick continued to improve upon his invention and in 1804, tested his first “Tramroad Locomotive,” a steam-powered engine on rails.
As interest in locomotive engineering continued to grow in Europe, engineers in the United States were quick to catch up. The 1830s saw many ambitious American engineers unveiling their creations, including Matthias Baldwin, whose company would become the largest single-plant locomotive builder in the world by the end of the Nineteenth Century.
The intelligence and imaginations of these engineers (and others like them) allowed locomotives to transform the world. Perhaps the significance of locomotives is best summed up by historian Robert Thurston, who in 1878 wrote, “[It would be] superfluous to attempt to enumerate the benefits which it has conferred upon the human race, for such an enumeration would include an addition to every comfort and the creation of almost every luxury that we now enjoy.”