One day the whole world will come to recognise the genius of Trevithick
BY SIMON PARKER
The Cornish have known it for 200 years. Historians have argued about it for almost as long. But now it seems the rest of the world is beginning to catch up by recognising Richard Trevithick – not James Watt or George Stephenson – as the inventor of the modern engine.
Trevithick, whose imposing statue stands outside the public library in his home town of Camborne, has for two centuries languished in semi-obscurity, been sidelined by academics, omitted from textbooks and – shamefully – ignored by educators. Yet it was his innovation in using high pressure steam, along with the invention of the world’s first motor car and passenger-carrying locomotive, that set him above all of his contemporaries.
And while it is often said that you don’t see a bus for ages and then two come along at once, what’s not said is that without one man’s genius the bus might not have come along at all.
The two “buses” in question take the form of a brace of BBC2 history programmes being broadcast this month – both, remarkably, tipping their hat to the great Cornish inventor.
Dan Snow’s History Of The Rail-ways mentioned the great man – albeit in passing – during the first part of a major new series which began last week. This Thursday evening, however, will see Trevithick’s contribution to world civilisation fully assessed in the first episode of BBC2’s The Genius Of Invention.
One man who is particularly pleased by the inclusion of the 19th century engineer in the new series is Trevithick Society chairman Philip Hosken.
Mr Hosken, whose book, The Oblivion Of Trevithick, was published last year, said: “We were told at school, and have heard it repeated many times since, that James Watt invented the steam engine. So ingrained is this myth that it is almost heresy to mention that history records a Cornish-man called Richard Trevithick as having invented the engine we all recognise – and many love.
“Man had been trying to control the dark forces contained in high pressure steam for a thousand years. It was Trevithick who used that steam at a sufficient pressure to act on the piston and drive the engine. To enable him to do this safely he invented the recognisable part of every steam engine to this day, the cylindrical boiler.
“In short, it was Trevithick’s cylindrical boiler which produced the steam that drove the Industrial Re-volution.”
Mr Hosken, who plans to publish a short history of Trevithick’s life and achievements later this year, added that he was pleased “the truth about Trevithick and his engine is being acknowledged by the BBC”.
Trevithick demonstrated the versatility of his engine in 1801 when he used a “puffing devil” to power a steam carriage in Camborne. This was the world’s first successful self-propelled road vehicle. Three years later he built a locomotive that ran on tram tracks in South Wales, carrying goods and passengers. This was the first self-propelled railway journey in the world. Despite being responsible for these and many other inventions, he has never been widely acknowledged or honoured in the way Watt and Stephenson are.
Dr Michael Mosley, who presents The Genius Of Invention programmes, agreed, stating: “Everyone believes that James Watt was responsible for the modern engine, but he wasn’t. Trevithick’s engine would become the father of the steam train and the father of portable power. He liberated power and in doing so trans-formed the world.”
The Genius Of Invention begins on BBC2 this Thursday January 24 at 9pm.