Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’

Stephenson's 'Rocket', Science Museum, South Kensington, London

Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’, Science Museum, South Kensington, London

One of the precious exhibits in the South Kensington Science Museum is the remains of the original Rocket, the revolutionary locomotive, accredited to George Stephenson but probably mainly the work of his son Robert, which won the Rainhill Trials in 1829 and headed the first ever inter-city train on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway the following year.

It was by no means the first practical steam locomotive, but it was certainly the first that could travel at speed to operate passenger trains between distant destinations.

The Stephensons’ design brought together a number of features which were either new or had been tried tentatively in earlier locomotives – a single pair of driving wheels unencumbered with heavy connecting rods, linked directly to a diagonally positioned cylinder, powered by a multi-tube boiler (like an immersion heater with twenty-five elements) with a separate, coke-fired firebox and a blast pipe to increase the heat of the fire.

It was a shrewd response to the specific requirements of the Rainhill Trials, and finally settled the argument about hauling trains on gently graded lines by cable or horse-power. It trounced the only two serious competitors, Novelty and Sans Pareil. George Stephenson took one look at his fellow-Geordie Timothy Hackworth’s Sans Pareil and declared, “Eh mon, we needn’t fear yon thing. Her’s got naw goots.”

It was Rocket, driven by the future civil engineer, Joseph Locke, that ran over and killed the President of the Board of Trade, William Huskisson MP, at Rainhill during the opening-day ceremonies.

Rocket was superseded by superior designs within four years, and was put to various uses until 1862, when it became a museum piece, donated to the Science Museum’s predecessor, the Patent Office.

It is shown in its 1862 condition, because its integrity as an artefact means much more than any attempt at restoration.

Anthony Burton’s 1979 BBC-TV documentary, The Rainhill Story: Stephenson’s Rocket, shows what was involved in bringing Rocket and its competitors to life in the late twentieth century:;

The various replicas, some in working order and one in cutaway form, show what Rocket was like when it was built. The original is original.

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