He began his working life alongside his father at Dewley Colliery but he was ambitious and took the first steps towards fame by learning to read and write at night school. Fascinated by machinery, Stephenson became enginewright at Killingworth Colliery in 1812 and studied the work of Watt and Trevithick.
In 1813, hearing about the success of William Hedley and
Timothy Hackworth with their Puffing Billy
at Wylam Colliery, he persuaded Nicholas Wood, his own colliery manager, to let him
try his hand at building a railway engine. The result, the following year, was the less-than-impressiveBlucher.
The Blucher was slow and unreliable on the colliery's wooden tram road, but its two vertical cylinders set into the boiler allowed it to pull 30 tons up a gradient at four mph.
More importantly, Stephenson's creation avoided the use of cog and rack pinions - it was the first successful flanged-wheel locomotive and, like Hedley's machine, it relied on adhesion between wheel and track.
Despite its shortcomings, Blucher helped to create Stephenson's reputation. He improved the design the following year by making the connecting rods drive the wheels directly, coupling each pair of wheels together by a chain. Over the next five years he built 16 more locomotives at Killingworth, some for the colliery and some for the Duke of Portland's wagonway between Kilmarnock and Troon.
Stephenson had now made his mark and in 1819, he was asked to construct an eight-mile line from Hetton to Sunderland.
This involved locomotives on some stretches but fixed hauling engines where the terrain was steep, and the experience convinced the engineer that, to be successful, future lines had to be made as level as possible.
In 1821 the Stockton and Darlington Railway was given Parliamentary approval at the third time of asking, but its proprietor, Edward Pease, envisaged using horse traction. Stephenson showed him Blucher at work at Killingworth and Pease became an instant convert to steam, offering Stephenson the post of chief engineer on the new line.
The same year, John Birkinshaw of Bedlington Ironworks devised a method of rolling 15-foot lengths of wrought-iron
In 1823, Pease, a retired woollen merchant, joined Stephenson and his son Robert in a firm to build steam locomotives.
Robert Stephenson and Co opened for business at Forth Street, Newcastle, Timothy Hackworth joining them soon afterwards to help build the famous engine Locomotion, now in the Science Museum.rails and Stephenson adopted the idea because it was better than the rails he was producing himself.
The Stockton-Darlington line was opened in 1825 and the
LOCOMOTION (top) was built by the Stephensons in 1825 for the Stockton-Darlington line. Above, the cottage in Wylam, Northumberland, where Stephenson was born in 1781.
The line proved a difficult challenge, with long tunnels at the Liverpool end and a huge bog to traverse at Chat Moss, not far from Manchester. Stephenson solved the latter problem by using fascines - bundles of wood - to support the rails. Doubters said the plan would never work - but the wooden bundles are still there and still doing their job today.
The Liverpool-Manchester line opened on September 15th 1830, ushering in the railway age. Stephenson went on to become engineer for the North Midland, Birmingham-Derby, Manchester-Leeds and other lines.
Stephenson bought Tapton House, Chesterfield, in 1838 and went into partnership with railway king George Hudson, opening mines, limestone quarries and ironworks. He even ventured into farming, experimenting with manure and animal feed and inventing a form of battery breeding for chickens.
Stephenson's second wife died in 1845 and he married for a third time, shortly before his death at Tapton House in 1848.