Stephenson’s Rocket wins the Rainhill Trials

Replica of The Rocket, © Jürgen Heegmann

On October 8, 1829, George Stephenson‘s steam locomotiveThe Rocket‘ won The Rainhill Trials, an important competition in the early days of steam locomotive railways, run in Rainhill, Lancashire (now Merseyside) for the nearly completed Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

“George Stephenson told me as a young man that railways will supersede almost all other methods of conveyance in this country — when mail-coaches will go by railway, and railroads will become the great highway for the king and all his subjects. I know there are great and almost insurmountable difficulties to be encountered; but what I have said will come to pass as sure as you live.”
— John Dixon, quoted by Samuel Smiles, Life of George Stephenson (1875)

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was about to get finished, it was the first twin-track inter city passenger railway and the operators did not know whether to use steam engines or locomotives to pull the trains. The directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway had originally intended to use stationary steam engines to haul trains along the railway using cables.They had appointed George Stephenson as their engineer of the line in 1826, and he strongly advocated for the use of steam locomotives instead. Therefore, the Rainhill Trials were held as an open contest with a prize of £500 for the winner. The judges came from the field of engineering with lots of experience in locomotives and their designs.

To figure out the most suitable machine, there were several tasks the locomotives had to complete considering weight, performance, and endurance. There were five locomotives starting in the competition and only one could complete the trials. The first drop-out, Cycloped built by Thomas Shaw Brandreth, was powered by a horse on a drive belt and after an accident, the horse fell through the floor of the engine. The second dropped out because of not reaching the required 10 mph and the third suffered from a cracked cylinder. The fourth drop out was a surprise, the Novelty built by John Ericsson and John Braithwaite counted as the favorite due to its low weight and its high speed, but suffered a severe boiler damage.

The winner was clearly the Rocket locomotive and the only to complete the trials. It achieved an average of 12 mph and weighed 13 tons. Stephenson and company was given the promised prize money as well as the contract to produce further locomotives for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Overall, Stephenson was able to deliver eight Rocket steam locomotives for the Liverpool-Manchester line. The Sans Pareil of Timothy Hackworth, whose cylinder exploded during the competition – a frequent defect in many locomotives at the time – was also taken over by the Liverpool-Manchester Railway, where it served longer than the Rocket, which had been shut down for a few years.

Several innovations were constructed on the Rocket. First of all, it used single pair driving wheels, multiple boiler fire-tubes, and blast-pipes causing the locomotive to be extremely light as well as fast and stable. From 1830 to 1834, the Rocket served on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and was donated to the Patent Office Museum in London in 1862.

At yovisto academic video search you can enjoy a video about the in 2005 reenacted Rainhill Trials by the Manchester Museum of Science and Technology.

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