Rocket and the Rainhill trials

Learn why Stephenson's Rocket is one of the most important locomotives ever.


Rocket replica in our Great Hall

In the years after Richard Trevithick invented the first high pressure steam engine in 1803, the functions performed by these 'locomotives' had the problem of using too much coal and being slow and unreliable.

The Challenge - The Rainhill Trials

By 1829 it was clear that a bit of a breakthrough was required. So the directors of the Liverpool and Manchester railway offered a purse of £500 to anyone who could better the existing efforts. The requirement was simple: the loco must pull three times its own weight along one and three-quarter miles of track forty times, at an average speed of 10mph.

The thought of winning such an amount - and the possibility of the subsequent commercial contract - was enough to excite locomotive builders all over. None more so than George Stephenson and his son Robert.

The Stephenson's brought three innovations to bear with their new locomotive 'Rocket':

  • they made the boiler more effective by using a mass of small tubes - instead of one large tube - to heat the water;
  • they made the fire burn more fiercely by sending exhaust steam from the cylinders up the chimney which created a vacuum (and the now familiar 'chuff' sound);
  • The simplified the connecting rod system linking the wheels and the cylinders that had the effect of improving drive and reducing the number of breakdowns.

For those that entered the Rainhill trials the pressure was intense - engineers had spent considerable amounts of time and money and had to test them in front of the company directors in addition to the thousands of spectators.

Triumphant

When Stephenson's turn came, he opened up Rocket and completed the course of 70 miles at an average speed of 13 mph.

The bulk of the other entrants were forced to withdraw after breakdowns although two machines - Novelty and Sanspareil - provided strong challenge before having to pull out before completing the challenge. Rocket was triumphant and the Stephenson's received fame, fortune and future work far beyond the prize money.

Legacy

For Rocket, her grand prize for winning turned out to be a few years service on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway before being sold to work as a freight engine. Having been build as a prototype the production models made soon after were more refined. But she has already secured her place in history: the basic design was ground-breaking and appeared in all subsequent steam locomotive designs.

In 1862 Rocket was donated to the Patent Office Museum and is now on display at the Science Museum in London. A working replica is found in our Great Hall and regularly takes price of place round our turntable or by hauling steam rides during the school holidays.

Background: Class 87