The Stephensons: Father and Son

W.H. Chaloner offers a study in British railway engineering.

After a century and a half of active life the steam locomotive is now widely thought to be obsolescent. But the importance of George and Robert Stephenson, who more than any other two men were responsible for inaugurating the steam-railway era in this country, deserves a re-assessment.

Their operations were characterized by solidity of workmanship and cautious finance, in contrast to the brilliant and costly ideas of some of their contemporaries. Isambard Kingdom Brunei may make a greater appeal to the imagination in his search for the best railway and the best steamship that could be devised, but the object of the Stephensons was to “make a railway that would pay” and in this limited aim they generally succeeded.

George Stephenson was born in 1781. He was one of the four children of a “fireman” employed in serving the stationary steam engines of various coal-pits around Wylam, eight miles west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, then the chief marketing centre of the premier British coalfield.

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