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story:Constructing the railway system

scene:The Rainhill Trials, October 1829

The Rainhill Trials, October 1829
The trial of railway locomotives at Rainhill, Lancashire, in 1829 was one of the key events of the Industrial Revolution. This part of the story looks at the design and performance of the contending locomotives and examines the rivalries behind the scenes. It describes the construction of Stephenson's Rocket, the winning engine, and explains the technology behind its success.

Images with the text:
A montage of images showing:
Braithwaite and Ericsson's Novelty, from Mechanics' Magazine (17 October 1829).
Timothy Hackworth's Sans Pareil, from Mechanics' Magazine (31 October 1829).
Thomas Brandreth's Cycloped, an entrant in the Rainhill Trials.
Timothy Burstall's Perseverance, an entrant in the Rainhill Trials.
Robert Stephenson's Rocket, from Mechanics' Magazine (24 October 1829).
The background to the trials
Early in 1829 the directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway faced a dilemma. They could not decide how their trains were to be powered. Independent experts were sceptical about steam locomotives and reported in favour of rope haulage using fixed engines. George Stephenson and his son Robert, however, argued strongly that the future lay in locomotives. Robert was particularly vocal:
'We are preparing for a counter-report which I believe will ultimately get the day, but from present appearances nothing decisive can be said: rely upon it, locomotives shall not be cowardly given up. I will fight for them until the last. They are worthy of a conflict.'
The directors, persuaded, decided to hold some performance trials to discover 'the most improved locomotive engine' for the railway. As an incentive the directors offered a prize of £500 to the winner. The trials were conducted over nine days in October 1829 on a specially completed length of the line near Rainhill. The first day of the trials was attended by nearly 15,000 spectators and large crowds watched each day's activities.
Images with the text:
James Walker and John Rastrick's report on fixed and locomotive engines, 1829.
Edge Hill station, Liverpool, showing chimneys for winding engines and ropes between tracks. After Rocket's success rope drive was only used in the tunnel down to the docks.
James Walker and John Rastrick's report on fixed and locomotive engines, 1829.
Edge Hill station, Liverpool, showing chimneys for winding engines and ropes between tracks. After Rocket's success rope drive was only used in the tunnel down to the docks.
The announcement
The invitation 'to engineers and iron founders' to submit locomotives for trial was inserted in the Liverpool Mercury for 1 May 1829. Those who expressed interest were sent a set of design specifications that they were to follow.
Among other things, these stipulated the maximum weight of the locomotive, which varied depending on whether it was on four or six wheels. There was little information about how the locomotives would be tested for acceptance.
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Advertisement in the Liverpool Mercury, 1 May 1829.
The Rainhill judges' 'stipulations and conditions', 25 April 1829.
Setting the scene
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Map of Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1830.
Why Rainhill?
In the spring of 1829 there was still a great deal of construction work remaining before the Liverpool and Manchester Railway could be opened for traffic. In order to have a testing ground for locomotives by 1 October, the date the railway's directors had decided on, a suitable length of line had to be specially pushed ahead to completion.
The section near Rainhill was chosen because it was, quite literally, a 'level playing field'. Here the line was both straight and level for nearly one-and-three-quarter miles. A measured distance was marked off, with two timing posts exactly one-and-a-half miles apart. The line continued beyond each end for getting up speed, slowing down and reversing.
A grandstand was built for spectators, but there were no special facilities provided for the engineers. This caused inconvenience and delay in carrying out repairs while the locomotives were on trial.
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Gradient plan of Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
A sketch of the trial distance, from Rastrick's notebook 1829.
Rules of the 'ordeal'
As the trials began the judges realised their initial 'stipulations and conditions' did not state what they wanted the locomotives to do. They issued a fresh set on the morning of 8 October, which laid down the procedure in some detail. Before each day's trial the judges carefully weighed the locomotive and the load it was to haul, and recorded the amount of fuel and water taken on.
They then timed the train over each run along the mile-and-a-half track. Ten return trips gave a run of thirty miles, the distance between Liverpool and Manchester. After refuelling, ten more return trips would simulate the return to Liverpool. A short distance was added at each end for stopping and reversing. When the trips had been completed, the amount of fuel and water used would be calculated, as well as the average speed.
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The requirements of the Rainhill Trials, dated 6 October 1829.
John Rastrick charted Rocket's performance in his notebook, recording the start and end times of each run. 8 October, 1829, Rocket's performance 30 miles in 3 hours and 12 minutes.
The judges
There were three judges:
John Rastrick, the chief judge, was an engineer and locomotive builder. He inspected the locomotives closely and wrote up the details in a notebook that is now preserved in the Science Museum. He also used the notebook to record the performance of the locomotives, presenting the results in the form of diagrams.
Nicholas Wood was chief engineer at Killingworth Colliery and had 15 years of experience with steam locomotives. He was author in 1825 of A practical treatise on rail-roads.
The third judge was John Kennedy, a prominent Manchester industrialist. He seems to have played little active part in the judging.
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John Rastrick's Rainhill notebook, open at the pages where he recorded the details of Stephenson's Rocket.
The contenders
About ten competitors put their names forward during the summer of 1829, but only five actually arrived at Rainhill in time for the start. Their names, and those of their locomotives, were listed on a 'race card' prepared by the judges on Monday 5 October. Two of these were not seriously in contention, so there were only three strong rivals: Novelty, Sans Pareil and Rocket.
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The Rainhill Trials 'race card'.
Novelty was designed and built in London by John Braithwaite and John Ericsson. It was very much a road-going steam coach put on railway wheels. In 1829 there were no railways in London, so the two engineers had been unable to carry out any testing before delivery to Rainhill. This was to prove a considerable drawback.
Images with the text:
John Braithwaite (1797-1870), joint designer of the Rainhill Trials contender Novelty.
John Ericsson (1803-1889), joint designer of the Rainhill Trials contender Novelty.
Details of Novelty as recorded in Rastrick's notebook.
Braithwaite and Ericsson's Novelty, from Mechanics' Magazine (17 October 1829).
Reconstruction of Braithwaite and Ericsson's Novelty in steam during the re-enactment of the Rainhill Trials for BBC2 Timewatch, first transmitted January 2003.
Sans Pareil
Timothy Hackworth, the Engine Superintendent of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, designed Sans Pareil. The name is French, meaning 'without equal'. It was a robust and workmanlike locomotive, but was not particularly innovative. It was also over the maximum weight allowed for a locomotive on four wheels; it should have been placed on six. As a concession, the judges allowed it to take part in the trials.
Images with the text:
Details of Sans Pareil as recorded in Rastrick's notebook.
Timothy Hackworth's Sans Pareil, from Mechanics' Magazine (31 October 1829).
Timothy Hackworth (1786-1850), designer of the Rainhill Trials contender Sans Pareil.
William Gowland, Sans Pareil's driver at the Rainhill Trials.
Sans Pareil, as preserved at the National Railway Museum, York.
Reconstruction of Hackworth's Sans Pareil in steam during the re-enactment of the Rainhill Trials for BBC2 Timewatch, first transmitted January 2003.
Henry Booth, treasurer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and George Stephenson, the line's engineer, entered their own locomotive, Rocket. It was designed by Robert Stephenson (George's son) and built at the works of Robert Stephenson & Co. at Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
At the suggestion of Henry Booth, the boiler was designed with a large number of narrow-bore fire tubes, rather than the simple large flue normally used. This was a crucially important innovation. Robert Stephenson was so confident of the superiority of Rocket that he came in as joint entrant with his father and Booth.
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Details of Robert Stephenson's Rocket, as recorded in Rastrick's Rainhill notebook.
Robert Stephenson's Rocket, from Mechanics' Magazine (24 October 1829).
George Stephenson (1781-1848), engineer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
Robert Stephenson (1803-59), designer of the Rainhill Trials contender Rocket.
Henry Booth (1788-1869), treasurer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
Reconstruction of Stephenson's Rocket in steam during the re-enactment of the Rainhill Trials for BBC2 Timewatch, first transmitted January 2003.
This was not a steam locomotive, but a horse-powered mobile platform. It was entered by Thomas Brandreth, a director of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Though completely unsuitable for the railway, the design did have some value. Cycloped was briefly demonstrated, but took no other part in the trials.
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Thomas Brandreth's Cycloped, from a drawing published in 1831.
Reproduction of Brandreth's Cycloped, built for a BBC television programme.
Perseverance was designed by Timothy Burstall of Edinburgh. It was an adaptation of an engine he had designed for a road-going steam coach. It suffered from being dropped while being unloaded at Rainhill. After repair, it performed only a few demonstration runs and was clearly underpowered. Burstall withdrew it, but he was later awarded £25 towards his expenses.
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Timothy Burstalls' Perseverance, from a Science Museum drawing.
RocketBuilding Rocket
Henry Booth, treasurer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and George Stephenson, the line's engineer, entered for the Rainhill Trials a locomotive that was to be built at the works of Robert Stephenson & Co. in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Henry Booth suggested using a boiler with a large number of narrow-bore copper fire tubes, but beyond this there is little evidence that either he or George had any influence on the design process.
The basic layout of the locomotive was developed in discussions between Robert Stephenson and his works colleagues George Phipps and William Hutchinson in May 1829. Once manufacture of the main component parts was under way, Stephenson found the time to get married, on 17 June. After only a brief honeymoon in Wales, he returned to Newcastle. The main construction work of 'Rocket' took place between July and September 1829. During this time Robert Stephenson wrote five letters to Henry Booth, reporting progress. It is clear from these that he was in personal charge of the project.
3 August 1829
'Since my arrival arrangements have been made which I expect will enable us to have the premium Eng [Rocket] working in the Factory say this day 3 weeks - this will give us time to make experiments or any alterations that may suggest themselves. The tubes are nearly all made, the whole number will be completed by to-morrow night, they are an excellent job - the only point I consider doubtful is the clinking of the ends of the tubes.The body of the boiler is finished and is a good piece of workmanship. The cylinder and other parts of the Engine are in a forward state . . . You had better get the tender made in Liverpool, the coach makers that made the last tender will make one neater than our men.'
('Clinking' was Stephenson's word for riveting the fire tubes tightly into the boiler end plates. A 'tender' is a truck towed behind the locomotive, used for carrying fuel and water.)
21 August 1829
'Having been a good deal from home since I wrote you last, I have not had an opportunity of writing you particulars of our progress so promptly as I promised. The tubes are all clunk into the Boiler which is placed on the frame: wheels, springs, and axle carriages are all finished. The clinking of the tubes is tight with boiling water. I am arranging the hydraulic pump to prove the boiler up to 160 lbs before proceeding any further. The cylinders and working gear is very nearly finished. I expect the mode for changing gear will please you it is now as simple as I can make it and I believe effectual. The fire box is put in its place, but it is not quite square built which gives rise to a little apparent neglect in the workmanship, I have endeavoured to hide it as much as possible. To-morrow week I expect we shall be ready for trial in the evening. '
(The firebox was made by contractors in Liverpool. It is not surprising that such a novel design gave them trouble. No doubt there was not enough time to have another made.)
26 August 1829
'On Wednesday I had the boiler filled with water and put up to the pressure of 70 lb per sq inch when I found that the yielding of the boiler end injured the clinking of the tubes. I therefore thought it prudent to stop the experiment until we got some stays put into the boiler longitudinally. The boiler end at 70 lb per sq inch came out full 3/16 of an inch. This you may easily conceive put a serious strain on the clinking at the tube ends'.
(The 'stays' were tie-rods running the length of the boiler to hold the boiler ends together against the pressure of steam.)
31 August 1829
'After the stays were put in, we tried the boiler up to 120 lbs per sq inch, when I found it necessary to put in two more stays in order to make the ends withstand 150 - this would be totally unnecessary if the fixed pressure for trial were 120. We can however make it stand the required pressure altho I scarcely think it prudent from what I stated in my last.'The putting in of these stays has put off the trial of the Engine until Wednesday [2 September]. The Mercurial guage [sic], is nearly finished, it will look well - The pipes being of wrought Iron has taken more time than I expected. The Wheels of the Engine are painted in the same manner as coach wheels and look extremely well. The same character of painting I intend keeping up, throughout the Engine it will look light which is one object we ought to aim at . . .''Mr Burstall Junior from Edinburgh (the builder of Perseverance) is in Newcastle, I have little doubt for the purpose of getting information. I was extremely mystified to find that he walked into the manufactory this morning and examined the Engine with all the coolness imaginable before we discovered who he was. He has, however, scarcely time to take advantage of any hints he might catch during his transient visit. It would have been as well if he had not seen anything.'
(The 'mercurial gauge' was for indicating the pressure of steam in the boiler.)
5 September 1829
'I daresay you are getting anxious but I have delayed writing you until I tried the engine on Killingworth Railway. It appeared prudent to make an actual trial and make any alterations that might present themselves during an experiment of that kind. The fire burns admirably and abundance of steam is raised when the fire is carefully attended to. This is an essential point because a coke fire when let down is bad to get up again; this rather prevented our experiment being so successful as it would have been throughout - We also found that from the construction of the working gear that the Engine did not work so well in one direction as in the other, this will be remedied. On the whole the Engine is capable of doing as much if not more than set forth in the stipulations. - After a great deal of trouble and anxiety we have got the tubes perfectly tight. As requested by you in Mr Locke's letter, I have not tried the boiler above 120 lbs. The Mercurial Guage [sic] and some other nick nacks are yet to be put on. On Friday next [11 September] the Engine will leave by way of Carlisle and will arrive in Liverpool on Wednesday week [16 September] .'

Images with the text:
George Stephenson (1781-1848), engineer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
Henry Booth (1788-1869), treasurer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
Rear-end view of Rocket's firebox, from Rastrick's notebook, 1829. The precise shape of the original firebox remained in doubt for nearly a century until the notebook was rediscovered in 1929.
Robert Stephenson's Rocket, from Mechanics' Magazine (24 October 1829).
Robert Stephenson (1803-59), designer of the Rainhill Trials contender Rocket.
Robert Stephenson's letter to Henry Booth, dated 3 August 1829.
Side view of Rocket's boiler and firebox, from Rastrick's notebook, 1829. It shows how the 25 copper fire tubes were arranged.
Sectioned model of Stephenson's Rocket as built in 1829, made for the Science Museum by Stuart Turner & Co in 1909.
Isometric sketch of Rocket's firebox, from Rastrick's notebook, 1829.
Stephenson's Rocket, the winner at Rainhill, showed the way forward for locomotive design.
Timothy Burstalls' Perseverance, from a Science Museum drawing.
Envelope of letter from Robert Stephenson to Henry Booth, 1829.
Explore Rocket
A D valve allows steam from the boiler to enter the cylinder on both sides of the piston. The steam expands, pushing the piston to and fro.
Fire heats the water inside the boiler creating steam, which is fed into the cylinder through the D valve. Hot gases from the fire pass through a boiler consisting of 25 small tubes. The tubes create a larger heating surface leading to more efficient use of the fire.
Exhaust steam passes along two pipes each fitted with a small nozzle inside the chimney. This creates a blast effect which draws the fire through the tubes more strongly, again increasing efficiency. Exhaust steam, smoke and fumes are expelled from the chimney.
Rainhill diaryMonday 5 October
Rocket gave a demonstration run for the railway's directors and the trial judges. Already it showed superior performance.
Tuesday 6 October
This was the official start of the trials and was attended by a very large crowd, possibly 15,000. No timed runs took place, but the three principal contenders were put through their paces. The way that Novelty ran, with speed but no visible working parts, made it the crowd's favourite.
'It seemed to fly, presenting one of the most sublime spectacles of mechanical ingenuity and human daring the world ever beheld', wrote an eyewitness. George Stephenson was not so impressed. Asked for his opinion of Novelty, he is reported to have replied 'No guts.'
Wednesday 7 October
The contestants were supposed to run in 'race card' order, but Novelty was found to need repairs. The judges then asked Hackworth to run Sans Pareil, but he was struggling with a leaking boiler and asked for more time. Then it began to pour with rain, washing out further testing. At the end of the day the judges advised the Stephensons to run Rocket the following day.
Thursday 8 October
This was Rocket's opportunity. The locomotive performed faultlessly. Hauling a load of three times its own weight, Rocket took 3 hours and 12 minutes in total to run the first ten round trips. After refuelling, the second ten round trips took 2 hours 57 minutes.
As the trial proceeded the footplate crew became more expert at handling Rocket, and on the last but one run in the afternoon they achieved a speed of over 24 miles per hour. Rastrick, the chief judge, noted that at the end the steam was 'as strong as at the commencement'.
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Rocket's performance chart for the first part of its trial on 8 October, drawn up by John Rastrick in his notebook.
Friday 9 October
No runs took place this day. Hackworth, Braithwaite and Ericsson were disputing the revised conditions for the trials, issued by the judges only the previous morning. Possibly this was a delaying tactic, as they were still working on their locomotives.
Saturday 10 October
It was time for Novelty to be tried again. Unfortunately, soon after starting, someone on the engine mistakenly shut down the stopcock between the water pump and the boiler. The feed pipe burst, and that was the end of Novelty's attempt for the day. Rocket was brought out later and gave some demonstration runs.
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Novelty's performance chart for 10 October.
Sunday 11 October
Sunday was a day of rest for all contestants.
Monday 12 October
No runs took place on this day, but the reasons for this aren't known.
Tuesday 13 October
Hackworth's Sans Pareil was ready for trial at last. It started well and looked to be a strong contender, but broke down on the eighth trip. It turned out to be a problem with the water pump. The boiler was not being refilled and one of the lead safety plugs burst, putting out the fire. The pump was quickly repaired, but failed again soon after restarting. This was the end of Sans Pareil's challenge.
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Sans Pareil's performance chart for 13 October.
Wednesday 14 October
This was to be the final day of the trials. Perseverance was run briefly, but managed only about 6 miles per hour. It was clearly a non-contender and was withdrawn. Braithwaite and Ericsson, with the generous assistance of Hackworth, had repaired Novelty and it was brought out again. However, the jointing cement used had not had time to set properly and soon gave way.
At this point Braithwaite and Ericsson withdrew Novelty from the competition. Hackworth asked for a second trial, but the judges were not impressed with the design of Sans Pareil and refused. It was then decided to bring the trials to a close. Rocket had performed all that was asked of it, and in due course the directors awarded the Stephensons and Booth the prize of £500.
As if to rub it in, Rocket then demonstrated its superiority: 'and to show that it had been working quite within its powers, Mr Stephenson ordered it to be brought on the ground and detached from all incumbrance, and in making two trips it moved at the astonishing rate of 35 miles an hour.'
For the first time, humans had travelled at a sustained speed faster than on horseback. John Dixon, an engineer on the line, was caught up in the enthusiasm. 'Rocket is by far the best engine I have ever seen for Blood and Bone united', he wrote to his brother.
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Novelty's performance chart for 14 October.
The winner and aftermathWinner
The progress of the trials was widely reported in the newspapers and technical journals. The Liverpool Mercury was among those who were sorry that Novelty had not had been given more of an opportunity to prove itself:
'The course is thus left clear for Mr Stephenson; and we congratulate him, with much sincerity, on the probability of his being about to receive the reward of £500.
'This is due to him for the perfection to which he has brought the old-fashioned locomotive engine; but the grand prize of public opinion is the one which has been gained by Messrs Braithwaite and Ericsson, for their decided improvement in the arrangement, the safety, simplicity, and the smoothness and steadiness of a locomotive engine.'
Sans Pareil had not really had a chance to show itself, either. After the trials Hackworth discovered a crack in a cylinder casting, which had led to a loss of power. The cylinders had been cast at Robert Stephenson & Co.'s works, and this fact caused some bad feeling towards the Stephensons from Hackworth's supporters. This was unfounded.
Cylinder castings are very complex and difficult to make, and it took six attempts to produce the pair that were fitted to Sans Pareil. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway bought Sans Pareil for £350 and it ran as a locomotive until 1844.
Meanwhile Rocket was undergoing further performance trials.
On one occasion it easily climbed an incline of 1 in 96 at 15 to 18 miles per hour, hauling a carriage holding nearly 30 passengers. This confirmed that winding engines were not now needed anywhere along the railway, except for the steep tunnel at Liverpool that led down to the docks.
On 26 October the Liverpool and Manchester's directors ordered four more locomotives of Rocket's design from Robert Stephenson & Co., later ordering another four. None of these was exactly like Rocket, with improvements proceeding apace as experience of running Rocket built up.
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Robert Stephenson & Co.'s Northumbrian (1830), the ultimate development of Rocket's design.
Stephenson's Rocket, the winner at Rainhill, showed the way forward for locomotive design.
Historic injustice?
George and Robert Stephenson's advocacy of the steam locomotive had been vindicated by the success of Rocket at Rainhill. Yet there were some who resented their victory. James Cropper, a member of the Liverpool and Manchester board, had backed the use of fixed engines and been defeated. He now argued for more locomotives along the lines of Braithwaite and Ericsson's Novelty. In deference to him, the directors purchased two. They were complete failures.
Hackworth and his supporters felt that he had been given a raw deal at Rainhill, for all that Sans Pareil was an obsolescent design and did not fulfil the conditions that had been laid down prior to the trial. Traces (good-natured) of this rivalry persist to this day, particularly in the vicinity of Shildon, County Durham, where Hackworth worked as Engine Superintendent to the Stockton & Darlington Railway.
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Title page of J. W. Hackworth's Memoir of Timothy Hackworth ('the father of locomotives'), 1892.
A study in preservation
Rocket was used on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway for several years, but was rebuilt several times. In particular, the Stephensons very quickly found that the steeply inclined cylinders made for a rough ride, so they were lowered to a nearly horizontal position. In 1836 Rocket was sold for further service on the Naworth Colliery railway, near Carlisle, but was out of use by 1840.
After twenty years of neglect it was restored at Robert Stephenson & Co.'s works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1862, before being preserved at South Kensington. Unfortunately the restoration was badly done and over the years the Science Museum's curators have gradually removed inaccurate reproduction parts.
Images with the text:
An 1836 drawing of Rocket, showing its final appearance as rebuilt for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
Rocket, as restored in 1862, seen outside the Museum building in 1876. This is believed to be the earliest photograph.
Rocket in 1929. Some of the parts incorrectly restored in 1862 have been removed, but others (including the chimney) remain.
Rocket on display in the Science Museum in 2003. All incorrect parts have been removed, but the chimney is a further reconstruction.
Rocket's place in history
Why is Rocket of such crucial importance in history? Before 1829 steam locomotives were only used for slow-speed goods trains, as a replacement for horses. They were crude and inefficient, made with blacksmith's technology. They drove the wheels through complicated arrangements of beams and levers, as in Puffing Billy. Rocket, however, was consciously designed for efficiency and speed.
The multi-tube boiler with a water-jacket firebox evaporated the water much more efficiently than a single large flue. The blast-pipe exhaust induced a draught through the fire and made the engine self-regulating. The pistons were directly coupled to the wheels by cranks set at right-angles to each other, giving a certain start and smooth drive. All these features became part of virtually every steam locomotive built throughout the reign of steam on the world's railways.
They were not invented for Rocket, but their use in combination on this one machine is what was new . . . and decisive.
The efficiency of Rocket's design was the springboard of the success of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. It linked two great commercial towns with a regular service of fast passenger trains.
Professional people in one place could now travel to the other town, transact a full day's business and return home the same day. Such mobility had not been possible in the days of coaching. Freight was carried as well, of course, but for the first time on any railway it was the passenger who was more important - and, crucially, more profitable. Investors saw the potential, and the future of the railway as we know it was assured.
Images with the text:
Evening Star, built in 1960, was Britain's last new steam locomotive. In principle it was a much enlarged Rocket.

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