ROBERT Stephenson would have occupied a bigger place in history had it not been for the ground-breaking achievements of his father.

But in fact, Stephenson Senior owed much of his success to his son, who gave tremendous help to his father in the early days of steam railways, and went on to become a brilliant and innovative engineer in his own right.

The younger Stephenson was born at Willington Key in 1803, and as a toddler, he is reputed to have been dandled on the knee of Richard Trevithick, who was visiting his father.

Robert was apprenticed to a coal viewer at Killingworth, but at the age of 19 his father, painfully aware of his own educational shortcomings, sent him to Edinburgh University for six months.

On his return, he helped George survey the Stockton-Darlington Railway and was appointed manager of the family's Newcastle engineering works the same year, at the tender age of 20.

Robert spent three years working in Colombia where, ironically, he met the impoverished Trevithick and paid his passage home.

When he returned to Britain, Robert continued his engineering work, helping his father to build the Rocket for the Liverpool-Manchester line and in 1838 he was appointed engineer of the London and Birmingham Railway. But it was as a structural engineer that Robert really came into his own and perhaps his crowning achievement was the magnificent tubular Britannia

ROCKET: The Stephensons' trial-winning engine
Bridge across the Menai Straits to Anglesey, constructed between 1845 and 1850.

He also built the bridge at Conway (1848), the High-Level Bridge at Newcastle (1849) and the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick (1850).

He was an MP from 1847, and when he died in 1859 his remains were interred in Westminster Abbey.