The Evolution of the American Locomotive.
Scientific American Supplement—April 24, 1897 (Part 1 of 3)

Member of the National Museum Committee—England


To write a short article on the evolution of the most scientific and wonderful form of the steam engine is not, by any means, an easy task; for not only is the quantity of information on the subject enormous, but it is scattered over a vast area, which makes it difficult to collect and classify and still more difficult to condense and present to the average reader in a way that shall be interesting without going too much into technical details.

It is to be deplored that no history worthy the name has yet been written of the American locomotive. Many short articles and fragmentary accounts of certain old engines have appeared in technical periodicals and some books have been written describing engines of a certain period, or those constructed by a particular firm of engine builders, but, valuable as these works are, none of them have attempted to deal with the subject in either a comprehensive manner or from an impartial standpoint.

Probably the best outline history of the American locomotive will be found in the opening pages of Zerah Colburn's "Locomotive Engineering and Mechanism of Railways," 1871. This is a standard English text book, and it is worthy of note that Mr. Colburn was an American.

The want of a good history is to be further regretted for the reason that drawings of many important locomotives have now become destroyed or lost and their designers and builders have since passed away. An illustration of this point can be made by quoting a passage from a letter received by the author front one of the largest locomotive works in America, in response to a request made by him for certain information

"We can find no drawings or tracings of the engine you refer to. At the time that engine was built full sets of drawings were probably never made. Full size sketches on boards were often made use of for important parts, sometimes half size on long rolls of paper, and the minor parts, even boilers, were made front pen sketches. Many of the half size drawings on paper, of the engines built in early days, have been defaced, torn and thrown away many years ago."

Even in cases where drawings have been preserved they have been found to be incorrect in details, because complete plans of many engines were never drawn, or if they were, alterations and additions were made during the building of the engines without such changes being noted on the drawings. This is a fault that even modern engineers and draughtsmen are not free from.

In the present article an attempt will be made to trace the progress of the American locomotive from the crude machine of about ninety years ago to the magnificent engine of modern tunes, passing but lightly over all sporadic or transitory forms and dealing principally with some of the earliest engines possessing details of construction that go to make the locomotive of the present day a mechanical and commercial success.

Richard Trevithick, of Cornwall, England, was undoubtedly the father of the locomotive. In the year 1803 he built a tramway engine having a horizontal cylinder connected by gear wheels to the driving wheels; he employed high pressure steam and turned the exhaust steam into the chimney by means of a pipe which he called the "blast pipe." On February 24, 1804, this engine was tried on the Penydarran tramroad, in Wales, and conveyed a load of ten tons of bar iron and about seventy passengers to Merthyr Tydvil, a distance of nine miles. The locomotive worked satisfactorily from a mechanical point of view, but commercially it was not a success, being more expensive than horse traction. [This engine was illustrated in the Scientific American Supplement, April 7, 1894].

No essay on our subject would be complete without mentioning the name of Oliver Evans, although his machine was not, strictly speaking, a locomotive engine, but it was the first carriage propelled by steam in America. The name of this curious machine was Eructor Amphibolis, and it was built for dredging purposes, being mounted on a scow or lighter having four carrying wheels. The engine had a walking beam and fly wheel communicating motion to the carrying wheels by rope gearing. Evans was thus enabled to transport the machine by its steam power from his shop in Philadelphia for some distance over rough roads to the river Schuylkill, which it navigated (by means of a paddle wheel) to its mouth, whence it ascended the Delaware to a point where it was set to work dredging. [This engine was illustrated in the Scientific American, April 3, 1847]. This was in the year 1804, and for the next twenty years Blenkinsop, Hedley, Hackwortb and Stephenson were bending all their energies to develop practical locomotives.

The next attempt at steam locomotion in America appears to have been in the year 1825, when Col. John Stevens, of Hoboken, N. J., designed and built a rack rail engine for the purpose of exhibiting to a committee of the Pennsylvania Society for Internal Improvement when the question of constructing a railroad from Philadelphia to Columbia was being considered. This was the first steam engine that carried passengers on a track in the United States, and is shown in Fig. 1.

The following extract from a letter dated March 30, 1883, from Mr. F. B. Stevens (Colonel Stevens' grandson) addressed to Mr. J. E. Watkins, Curator of the National Museum, Washington, describing the locomotive of 1825, will be of interest:

"The track was laid on wooden stringers capped with thin iron, the gage being about that usual on ordinary roads or turnpikes. A cast iron rack was laid in the center of track, and into the teeth of this rack a cog wheel, driven by the engine, geared. The engine had only a single cylinder, which was exactly horizontal, resting on the main frame and was from four to five inches in diameter and about one foot stroke. The boiler was formed by a number of vertical tubes each about 1¼ inches external diameter and 4½ feet long. These tubes were set closely together in a circle, surrounding and inclosing a circular grate of about ten inches in diameter. This boiler was inclosed by a jacket of thin sheet iron, which was surmounted by a conical hood on which the smoke stack rested. The fuel was wood, which was dropped on to the grate through a door in the hood. The boiler with its jacket and stack presented very much the outside appearance of the small vertical flue boilers now in use.

"The engine was set on four wooden wheels about four feet in diameter.

"I have an impression that friction wheels of small diameter and having their axes vertical were used to keep the engine on the track, but my recollection is not at all distinct on this point. The tires were without flanges, the wheels being the ordinary wagon wheels."

A full size model of this engine was shown at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 with the tubes placed outside for the purpose of exhibition, as seen in the illustration.

But the first practical locomotives were imported from England. With however much pride (and justly) we Americans may point to our modern engines, some of which are the fastest and most powerful in the world, we must not forget that the cradle of the locomotive was in Great Britain, and that long before any such machine was seen in this country, stalwart mechanics on the bleak hills of northern England and Wales had sweated and toiled their lives away in the face of difficulties and discouragements of which we know nothing; and, with scarcely one of the appliances now commonly found in machine shops, had produced successful locomotives for hauling coal and freight trains. In the year 1825 the Stockton and Darlington Railway was opened for traffic, with George Stephenson's engine Locomotion, and from that time the steam passenger railroad was an established fact.

From Stretton's valuable and interesting book, "The Locomotive Engine and its Development," we learn that early in the year 1828 the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, having heard of the success of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, sent Mr. Horatio Allen over to England with instructions to obtain information and purchase rails and locomotives. He placed orders for some engines with Messrs. Foster, Rastrick & Company, of Stourbridge, and also with George Stephenson. Stephenson's engine was named America; it was built in 1828, and arrived in New York on board the ship Columbia about the middle of January, 1829. It was the first practical locomotive seen in this country and is illustrated by Fig. 2, which is a copy of one of Stephenson's working drawings. Although this engine was the first to arrive, it was not the first to be used, as will be seen later on. Following are some of the principal dimensions of America: Diameter of boiler, 4 feet 1 inch. Length, 9 feet 6 inches. Dimensions of fire place, 4 feet by 3 feet. Diameter of cylinders, 9 inches by 24 inch stroke. Wheels (wood), diameter 4 feet. Angle of cylinders to the horizontal, 33°. Diameter of tubes, 1 foot 7 inches. Number of tubes, 2. It had no smokebox, the two fire tubes opening directly into the chimney base.

All the early engines designed by Stephenson had frames made of bar iron, but about the year 1826 he adopted a composite frame; the frame connecting the wheels and supporting the boiler being of bar iron as usual, with the addition of a plate iron frame carrying the cylinders and motion, as seen in America. While this construction possesses grave faults, it illustrates a step in the evolution of the locomotive frame, for in 1830 Stephenson abandoned the bar frame and introduced a double plate frame with an oak beam fastened in between the plates. This was called the "sandwich" frame and was used in England for many years, until the oak filling was finally discarded and the frames made of iron plates alone: Thus, the plate frame of the English locomotive of to-day is a development of the cylinder frame of America. On the other hand, American builders, while they used the sandwich frame to a limited extent, soon selected the bar frame as better adapted to American requirements on account of its superior flexibility on a rough track and comparative low cost, and this bar frame is one of the chief characteristics of the modern American locomotive.

Messrs. Foster & Rastrick's engine, the Stourbridge Lion, is shown in Fig. 3, and was also built in 1828, arriving in New York May, 1829. It was tried for the first time August 9, 1829, being driven by Horatio Allen on a section of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company's railroad and was the first practical locomotive ever run on a railroad in America. As it was too heavy (7 tons) for the very light track of that period, it was soon withdrawn from traction service. The boiler was tubular and the exhaust steam was carried into the chimney by a pipe in front of the smoke box, as shown. It had vertical cylinders of 36 inches stroke, with "grasshopper" beams and connecting rods, thereby imparting an up and down movement to the driving wheels, a serious defect in a locomotive, as a vertical pull on the cranks is hard on the track and makes the engine unsteady.

In this respect also Stephenson's America (Fig. 2) is worthy a little study, as it is one of the earliest improvements he made in the locomotive engine. It will be seen that the piston rods communicate motion to the cranks by connecting rods without any intermediate gearing (this plan was first used by him in the year 1826), and thus we have one of the earliest examples of a direct connected four coupled engine as now in use all over the world.

We now come to the year 1829, which was a memorable one in railway history, but before describing the principal event of that period it is necessary to note in passing that Peter Cooper built an experimental engine named Tom Thumb. This engine had an upright boiler 20 inches in diameter by 5 feet high, with gun barrels for tubes. It had a single cylinder 3¼ inches diameter by 14½ inches stroke. This engine was tried August 28,1830, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and with a load of 4½ tons it made 13 miles in 1 hour and 15 minutes, the best time for a single mile being 3¼ minutes.

In the year 1829 George Stephenson placed his world renowned Rocket on the tracks of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Although this was only about a year after America was built, the Rocket was a vast improvement on that engine, having a multitubular boiler (tubes were of copper) with a fire box riveted to the end thereof, and surrounded with water, inclined cylinders with direct connection between the piston rods and crank pins on a single pair of driving wheels, and the exhaust steam was turned into the chimney through a blast nozzle. In short, it possessed all the essential features of the modern locomotive. [This engine was illustrated in the Scientific American Supplement, April 7, 1894]. At the celebrated Rainhill trials, commencing October 8, 1829, it attained a maximum speed of 24 miles an hour, and is credited with covering a mile in 60 seconds when running without a train.

This engine is preserved in the South Kensington Museum, London, and is generally regarded as the most interesting locomotive in the world, not only for the reasons above named, but also for the fact that its success went a great way to silence the opposition to railways; an opposition that is hard for us to realize at the present day. The early locomotives were contemptuously called "steam pots," by the stage coach and canal proprietors, and they, together with other interested parties, to say nothing of the large class of people who objected to innovations on general principles, made the work of the first railway mechanical engineers one of extraordinary difficulty. It was not an uncommon thing for the engine men to be pelted with stones and brickbats when on a journey, and George Stephenson himself was in danger of his life on more than one occasion. Logs of wood, etc., were frequently placed on the track in front of an approaching train, which was quite serious, as, in those days of insufficient brake power and cumbersome reversing gear, it was almost impossible to stop the engine in time. Even some of the civil engineers of that day were unfavorable to locomotives, as, in their opinion, the lines could be worked more cheaply and better by horses. With a few brilliant exceptions, the English landed gentry were opposed to Stephenson and his infernal machines, a certain nobleman, in the course of a public speech, declaring that he "would rather meet a highwayman on the road than an engineer." The absurd and exasperating questions put to Stephenson by Parliamentary lawyers when early railway bills were introduced are matters of history.

We will now recross the Atlantic and see what the Americans were doing about this time. In sharp contrast to the general opposition which the indomitable Stephenson and the handful of enterprising merchants and capitalists who supported him had to fight against, it is refreshing to read that, as Mr. Charles Francis Adams has expressed it, [See "Railroads: There Origins and Problems"] "All through the time during which Stephenson was fighting the battle of the locomotive, America, as if in anticipation of his victory, was building railroads. . . The country, therefore, was not only ripe to accept the results of the Rainhill contest, but it was anticipating them with eager hope." On the fourth of July, 1828, the construction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was begun, the first act being performed by the venerable Charles Carroll, of Carrollton, the only then surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. At the close of the ceremony of breaking ground Mr. Carroll said, "I consider this among the most important acts of my life, second only to that of signing the Declaration of Independence, if even second to that."

The American mechanics were also following closely on the heels of their English brothers, and in 1830 the South Carolina Railroad Company contracted with Mr. E. L. Miller to build a locomotive which was named the Best Friend. It was the first locomotive ever built in America for actual service upon a railroad, and was designed by Adam Hall and constructed by the West Point Foundry Association, foot of Beach Street, New York City. It was a four coupled, inside connected engine, as shown in Fig. 4, which is reproduced from a copy of the original drawing. The cylinders were 6 inches in diameter by 16 inches stroke, driving wheels 4 feet 9 inches diameter, weight 4½ tons. The boiler was vertical, and was totally destroyed by explosion on June 7, 1831, being, it is said, the first locomotive boiler explosion on record.

The second locomotive built for actual service in the United States was the West Point, in 1830-31; it was built for the same railroad and at the same shops as the Best Friend. This engine had a horizontal tubular boiler with tubes 2½ inches in diameter and 6 feet long. Four coupled driving wheels 4 feet 9 inches diameter. Inside connected cylinders 6 inches diameter by 16 inches stroke. With 5 cars containing 117 passengers this engine made 2½ miles in 8 minutes.

The third American engine built for actual service was the De Witt Clinton. This engine was also constructed at the West Point Foundry in 1831, and was trade for the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, now a part of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, to the order of Mr. John B. Jervis, chief engineer of the former road. A full size model of this engine was exhibited at the Columbian Exposition, 1893, and is illustrated on the right hand side of Fig. 5. The engine on the opposite side of the cut is No. 999, and will be described in its proper place later on. The outward appearance of De Witt Clinton was very similar to America, Fig. 2, but the cylinders were inside connected and the frames were of wood, reinforced with iron. We also notice that it had a rudimentary smoke box. The boiler had 30 copper tubes, 2½ inches diameter, wheels 4 feet 6 inches diameter, cylinders 5½ inches diameter by 16 inches stroke, weight, of engine and tender about 6 tons.

The first regular trip was made between Albany and Schenectady, August 9, 1831, when, with a load of three coaches, a maximum speed of 15 miles an hour was attained, but, alone, the engine was run at a speed of 40 miles an hour. The conductor had a small seat on the rear of the tender and gave the signal for starting by blowing a tin horn. We are told that "the fuel used was dry pitch pine, and as there was no spark arrester on the stack, the sparks poured back on the passengers in such a volume that they raised their umbrellas as shields. The covers were soon burned off these, and each man whipped his neighbor's clothes to put out the fire started by the hot cinders."

The illustration shows the engine with a large steam dome, but in an official drawing published in the Railroad Gazette of May 25, 1883 (which also contains authentic drawings of the Best Friend and West Point), the engine is without a steam dome. The New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company's description gives the diameter of driving wheels as 4 feet 6 inches, but the wheels on the above named drawing scale 5 feet. There are other discrepancies, but, nevertheless, Fig. 5 may be accepted as a fair representation of the De Witt Clinton.

Mention having been made of the conductor blowing a tin horn, we note, by the way, that an old print showing Stephenson's Planet on Liverpool and Manchester Railway, year 1830, represents the engine driver blowing a bugle after the manner of a stage coach guard. The first whistle was a steam trumpet placed by George Stephenson on the Samson, a freight engine for the Leicester and Swannington Railway, in May, 1833.

(To be continued.)

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