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Stephenson's Rocket, wins the Rainhill Trials

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 08 Oct

Robert Stephenson’s Locomotive, The Rocket, wins the Rainhill Trials

  -  8th October 1829  -  



The Stephenson family will be forever remembered as one of the key railway families in our Island’s history. George Stephenson is even known as the father of the railways and built the first intercity train line between Liverpool and Manchester. He had built locomotives for hauling coal in 1814 at his factory, Forth Street Works, near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. His son, Robert took over the family firm and with the help of his father and Henry Booth built a locomotive that would be remembered for ever – the Rocket.


The reason for the construction of the machine was to win the contract to build the first trains to run between the two cities mentioned above. The trails were to take place at Rainhill, just outside Manchester.


The conditions for this contest were that the locomotives must be started cold and travel 35 miles with 10 trips. They must also be refueled after each journey. 15,000 people turned up to watch the spectacle. There were ten trains entered for the trials but only five of them turned up. The five were: Cycloped, Novelty, Perseverance, Rocket and Sans Pareil. Unfortunately Perseverance did not live up to its name and was withdrawn early on the first day, as was Cycloped. Both Sans Pareil and Novelty fared better over the first two days but on day three mechanical failure led to their withdrawal too. 


This left the Rocket as the only locomotive still standing. On day three it covered 35 miles in 3 hours 12 minutes pulling 13 tons of loaded wagons, averaging over 12mph. On one trip it averaged 25mph and with just the locomotive it managed speeds of 29mph. 


The Rocket had brand new design features. It weighed just 4 tons, was lighter than all the others, as well as being smaller and faster. It burned coke, a refined bi-product of coal and had a 0-2-2 wheel arrangement with just 1 axle of drivers that was powered by pistons and a cylinder at an angle of 35°. It had a firebox that was separated from the boiler and surrounded by water with multi copper pipes, flues, leading through the boiler that were also submerged in water that was transferred into steam to drive the pistons. This increased the heating surface from just having one pipe. The blast pipe also increased the draught to the fire by concentrating the exhaust steam at the base of the chimney, thus increasing its efficiency. 


Robert Stephenson himself explains the ideas better himself:


“By causing all the flame and heated air to pass through a great number of tubes surrounded by water, a very great and rapid means of heating the water is obtained as a very large heated surface is thus exposed to the water.

Former locomotives with only a flue through the boiler have never been able to travel faster than about eight miles an hour as they had not sufficient heating surface in the boiler to generate the steam for supplying the cylinder more rapidly.

The introduction of tubes into the boiler is one of the greatest improvements that has been made in the construction of locomotives, and was the cause of the superiority of the rocket engine to those that competed with it.”



The three judges, Jon Raistrick, Nicholas Wood and John Kennedy awarded the first prize, and £500, to Robert Stephenson’s company as well as the contract to supply the trains that would run up and down the lines. 


The Liverpool Mercury reported this in October:


“We may consider the trial of the Locomotive Engines as now virtually at an end. It is much to be regretted, that "The Novelty" was not built in time to have the same opportunity of exercising that Mr. Stephenson's engine had, or that there is not in London, or its vicinity, any railway where experiments with it could have been tried. It will evidently require several weeks to perfect the working of the machine and the proper fitting of the joints, and under this impression, Messrs. Braithwaite and Ericsson have acted wisely in withdrawing, us they have done, from the contest.

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; and however imperfect the present works of the machine may be it is beyond a doubt - and we believe we speak the opinion of nine-tenths of the engineers and scientific men now in Liverpool — that it is the principle and arrangement of this London engine which will be followed in the construction of all future locomotives.”


In 1830 the locomotive was modified - a smokebox was added and the chimney was shortened. The following year the cylinder angle was reduced from 35° to 8° which made it steadier. The train then worked the line until the late 1830s. 


The Rocket was sold for £300 to serve on the Brampton Railway in Cumberland. In 1862 it was donated to the Patent Office Museum in London, now called the Science Museum, where it can still be seen today – a living memory of Britain’s extraordinary industrial and engineering history. 

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