Before we dive into the steam-powered locomotive, we need to precursor it with the technology that inspired it. It is called the steam-powered locomotive because that is how this massive compilation of iron and wood rolls along the track. Steam power is one of the most iconic technologies that the industrial revolution gave birth to. The problem back on that day was that most of the technology of that day relied on water to power the factory/machines. The problem with that is all the businesses and factories required to be near a water source in order to operate. Then a man named Thomas Savery patented the technology for his steam engine in 1698. This allowed the steam to pump the water, therefore keeping the water out from inside the mines. Later, engineers like Thomas Newcomen and James Watt made their own contributions to the steam engine technology.
What did people do before the steam-powered locomotives and trains? Besides walking, there were some other forms of transportation that were faster. Some common modes of transportation were horse-drawn carriage, wagon, cart, or stagecoach. The thing to remember here is that not a lot of people had the money to buy these modes of transportation. There were other animals besides horses too. There were donkeys, camels, cows, and a slew of other animals that people used. There were attachments that people made that were similar to sleds. For instance, there was a device called a “travois” which was an assembly of sticks to make a cage-like ball that helped with the transport of babies, personal belongings, and possibly the sick and disabled.
Now the steam engine did not originate in America. The first full-scale locomotive was created overseas in England by the British Engineer Richard Trevithick in 1804. I was surprised to find out that this first rendition of the steam-powered locomotive was not that well received. The people took to liking the locomotive made by another British named George Stephenson. He named his model BlÜcher. This model had the capability to “…haul up to 30 tons of coal at 4 mph going uphill.” The first public railway for these steam engines was also invented by George Stephenson.
Now the steam locomotive makes its way overseas into the states. The first one was shipped over from Britain because they needed help with the transport of coal. There was a problem, though. The tracks in the states were rated for only four tons, and the locomotive weighed in at seven and a half tons. Then, an American engineer named Peter Cooper built the first steam locomotive in the States. His model, famously known as Tom Thumb, had its first run in 1830. This vessel of transportation upped the speed of Stephenson’s model by 14 mph. Not only was it faster, but it could also haul 36 passengers. This is just a summary of the early days of the steam-powered locomotive, and we have made great improvements to this technology and the train is still used today to haul both materials, supplies, and passengers.
How does the steam engine work? Well, in order to get steam, we need water and fire. Various forms of fuel would help generate the fire. The most common were wood and coal, but oil was often used as well. The main goal here is to get fire, which then produces the steam that makes the wheels turn. This process occurred in the Fire tube boilers, which were mostly built horizontally. The way that the boiler worked was that there was a firebox at the rear. This is where the fuel would be loaded, and the fire would be made. This fire heated the water. The gases from that heat make their way into pipes. These pipes are submerged into water. Heated gas warms the pipes, which then heat the water, leading to steam. If the steam was too much and caused too much pressure, it could be released manually. Another option is that that steam could “…be released into the steam pipes into a cylinder where it moves the pistons.” The pistons were connected to the wheels. Therefore, this whole process is to generate steam, run it through pipes, and move the pistons, or release the extra pressure.
Once again these are the early days of the train. Nowadays, the steam engine locomotive isn’t really used for daily transport anymore like it used to. There are still some around though. These full-sized beasts are still functioning but are primarily used for educational purposes. A functioning replica of the famous Tom Thumb locomotive resides at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
Although the technology of the steam engine is a bit outdated, we definitely use the train today and the technology of the steam-powered locomotive had improved in leaps and bounds since its inception. The steam locomotive technology has been improved and replaced with bigger and better motors capable of hauling way more than a couple of tons like the old locomotives. One of the early problems that the trains had, believe it or not, were cows. Cows would wander onto the tracks and block the path of the train. So, a device was created to better navigate the turns and knock the cows off of the track: the cowcatcher. This device was triangular in nature and was mounted to the front of the train. The original purpose of the train was to help with the transport of materials such as coal and wood, but passenger transportation became significantly popular. These even had dining and sleeping cars for the extra flair of luxury. Trains continued to get large and more powerful. The two-cylinder motor eventually upgraded to a four-cylinder. Then, the addition of more gears aided in the power and torque. Trains were then used more in the industrial field for help in mining, logging, and quarry.
Diesel and electric motors began to replace the old motor technology in the 1930’s-1950’s and that is what the world has today. Japan is famous for its wicked fast electric trains, and if you make your way across America, then you will see all kinds of railyards and railways connecting the country. Whether transporting people or materials, trains are still used today and it all came from a brilliant idea from the industrial revolution movement.