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Steam and Richard Trevithick

Richard Trevithick is one of Cornwall’s most famous sons.

His work with high-pressure steam changed the world – he built the first full scale steam locomotive and his ‘Puffing Devil’ was the first passenger carrying road vehicle (forerunner to the motor car). Its first journey took place right here in Camborne.

Trevithick was born near here in 1771, in Illogan parish, the mining heartland of Cornwall. His father was the manager of Dolcoath mine here in Camborne, and he was surrounded by machinery and engineering from a very early age.

At school in Camborne, Trevithick showed an unconventional skill with numbers, and by the age of 19 he was already a consultant at the East Stray Park mine. In 1797 he married Jane Harvey, daughter of the Harvey’s of Hayle, a world-renowned engineering family who built beam engines for pumping water. It was then that his pioneering work with steam began.

Known locally as ‘The Puffing Devil’, Trevithick’s high-pressure steam carriage was built here in 1801, and had its first test run on Christmas Eve, up Camborne Hill (now called Tehidy Road and Fore Street) to Camborne Cross and on to the village of Beacon.

(This famous journey was the world’s first demonstration of steam-powered transport, and inspired the popular Cornish folk song ‘Camborne Hill’.)

But Trevithick’s high-pressure steam inventions didn’t stop there. The London Steam carriage followed, along with the Pen-y-Darren locomotive at Merthyr Tydfil Ironworks and the ‘Catch Me Who Can’ – a ‘steam circus’ for the public in London.

His many other engineering projects included ship containers, dry docks, surface condensers, central heating systems and screw propellers. In later life, he adventured in South America, draining silver mines in Peru and exploring Costa Rica on foot where he met Robert Stephenson and was almost eaten by an alligator before returning to Britain.

Sadly, Richard Trevithick died penniless in 1833, his workmates clubbing together to pay for his grave. But his legacy lives on – it shaped the world around us, and here in Camborne we commemorate his genius every April, on Trevithick Day.

“Goin’ up Camborne Hill, coming down
The horses stood still;
The wheels went around;
Goin’ up Camborne Hill coming down”

Traditional Cornish song

 

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