The ancient peoples, and specially the Romans, to preserve to the maximum possible the paving and facilitate the march of the carts, when building their roads, used to place the harder and more regular stones in two central lines in the fashion of rails, separated by the normal distance of the wheels. There is no absolute certainty on when the first railways appeared; it seems that it was in the year 1548, but the first certain data dates back from 1650 when in England and Germany some wooden guides were seen in the tracks that gave access to the mines. The city of Middleton, in Lancaster County, was the first one in adopting true wooden guides. But soon it was seen the big disadvantage that they represented: they easily sank in the terrain and deteriorated, demanding a continuous maintenance and replacement.
Then it was thought to cover the wooden guides with metal and also give more solidity to the tracks. Things improved, but they were still not satisfactory; in return, it was obtained a good result when the wooden guides were replaced by cast iron guides, which definitely received the name rails. The first ones that were built were only some meters long, being kept fixed by stone blocks. So, circa 1804 it was inaugurated the first railroad between the cities of Wandsworth and Croydon, on the banks of the Thames, but, well understood, by using animal traction... And anyone who possessed carriages and horses or carts and any draft animal could freely use the new road.
Almost simultaneously appeared in Paris the omnibus, naturally operating with animal traction, while the stagecoaches and postal services continued their activities with the habitual coaching change. But the human, who during countless years had tried to multiply the strenght of the muscles by building machines, very soon was possessed by the desire of using those machines as engines for the vehicles which moved on wheels. The narration of the efforts to achieve this, which date back to the beginning of the 18th century, would be excessively long. We should instead start by James Watt and his machine, in which the steam actuated alternatively on the two faces of a piston inside a vertical cylinder. In the machines built by his predecessors, Papin and Newcomen, who can be considered as the fathers of the steam engine, the steam actuated only below the piston making it move up, while to make it move down it was required to totally remove the steam.
James Watt had learned in London the art of constructing precision mechanical instruments and being thirty years old he had returned to Glasgow, his hometown, determined to establish his own mechanical workshop. The powerful organization of the manufacturers prevented this, because of not reuniting all the requirements demanded, so Watt had to accept a position in the laboratories of the University. He lived in truly lamentable conditions and his future did not seem of pink color, precisely, but then the fortuity came to his aid. In the laboratories of the University there was a Newcomen steam machine which some day started to behave wrongly. Watt was assigned to repair it, and not only he found the flaw, but also realized how inefficient its design was.
He immediately understood that the cylinder in which the steam worked had to be kept as hot as possible; and then he had the idea of condensing the heat. To achieve this he worked many years, overcoming several difficulties of technical and financial type, before managing to build a machine which worked in such way that it could pump the water by itself. He had to make a great effort to introduce it in the market, but finally the orders came from everywhere in the world. The rest of his life was free of financial concerns, but his spirit was always absorbed by new studies, to the point that he intuited that his steam machine could be used as well for transporting freight and persons, and he made a patent for this idea which, however, never carried to practice, until he died in Birmingham in 1819.
It would be required the apparition of Richard Trevithick to see running on rails a steam machine dragging a certain load. Trevithick, fully convinced about the capacity of his high-pressure machine, approached a mines owner in South Wales, offering to him to build a steam machine not only capable of replacing the horses in the transportation of materials, but also able to drag a cargo superior to 10 tonnes. To overcome the incredulity and skepticism that his offert provoked, he accepted a bet of 500 pound sterling; this considerable amount ended in his pockets when, to the general astonishment, his new machine called "Tram Waggon", puffing smoke, dragged a convoy weighing more than 25 tonnes, traveling 16 kilometers on rails in four hours. This happened in 1804.
Locomotive built by Trevithick in 1803.
But very soon it was realized that, due to the excessive weight of the machine, very superior to the one of wagons towed by animals, the rails broke easily and, hence, the locomotive, finished its brief mobile life, ended its days in the mine as a static machine. Parallely Trevithick thought in using his new means of locomotion for transporting persons. Suggested this idea by his overflowing fantasy, he installed in London a "circus railway" in 1808. This one consisted of a circular railway on which it ran a steam machine towing a car, being able to reach the then exceptional speed of 30 kilometers per hour; all of this inside an enclosure with a very tall fence. To enter, the visitor had to pay a ticket which granted the right to ride in the small convoy.
Still, the result was not so satisfying and Trevithick was forced to close his recreation. His entire life was a continuous alternation of tragedies and successes, ending his days in 1833 in abject poverty, in Dartfort, to the point that the owners and the workers from the surrounding factories had to make a collection to grant this hapless inventor a honorable burial.Continue reading...