George Stephenson (1781-1841) is generally considered to be the 'Father of the Railway'; although he neither invented railways nor steam locomotion, he improved the engineering of the former and the technology of the latter to such an extent that modern railway transportation became possible.
Stephenson was born in Wylam, Northumberland, in north-east England, the son of a coal-miner. He was illiterate until attending night-school as a young adult, but his technical ability, intelligence and determination secured him employment at Killingworth Colliery, near Newcastle upon Tyne. At Killingworth he built successful locomotives for the mine railway.
In the 1810s he built the Hetton Colliery Railway (at that time, the longest railway line ever built at one time); and in the early 1820s was appointed engineer to the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the first public (i.e. not owned by a colliery), steam-powered (in part) line in the world. This was built to carry coal from the SW Durham coalfield to navigable water on the River Tees, as well as other goods and passengers, and opened in 1825. In the later 1820s he was engineer to the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, which opened in 1830, and for which he developed the advanced steam locomotive Rocket. The L&MR was the world's first inter-city rail route, linking two of the fastest-growing cities of the Industrial Revolution. The line crossed flat, but not easy, terrain: the biggest problem faced by Stephenson was crossing the great bog of Chat Moss. Attempts to create an earth causeway across the bog were frustrated by its unexpected depth; instead, Stephenson laid the railway lines on floating wicker rafts.
Stephenson went on to build numerous railway lines, mainly in northern and midland England, including:
- Birmingham & Derby Junction (1839)
- York & North Midland (1839)
- Manchester & Leeds (1840)
- North Midland (1840)
He invented a miners' safety lamp similar in design to the contemporary Davy lamp of Sir Humphrey Davy but felt that issues of class in the England of the time prevented his getting proper credit for that achievement.
George Stephenson was the father of the engineer Robert Stephenson.