Railroads vastly lowered the cost of moving people and goods over land.
Richard Trevithick invented the locomotive engine. However, he never quite created a fully functioning railroad: Trevithick’s locomotive was a literal circus act, pulling children around a track at a circus.
His core innovation was the idea of a high-pressure steam engine. Prior steam engines, invented by James Watt of Boulton & Watt, used atmospheric pressure. That is, the weight of air would compress the piston and steam would expand it. Trevithick’s high-pressure engine, on the other hand, worked like a modern engine, using the fuel to power the pistons to create thrust.
An early Trevithick engine blew up killing four men. An enraged Watt suggested that Trevithick should be hanged though it wasn’t clear if his anger was jealousy, at the high-pressure engine, fear of engines being shunned, or genuine moral outrage.
Furthermore, Trevithick lived nearby (some say he was neighbors with) Watt engineer James Murdoch. It is entirely possible that Murdch helped the illiterate Trevithick build his engine. Murdoch would have been prevented from doing so due to Watt’s distaste for high-pressure engines.
Whatever the reasons, Trevithick died poor, buried in an anonymous paupers grave despite the impact of his innovation to the world.
George Stephenson is generally created as the innovator of the first real railroad. To this day, standard gauge railroad tracks are referred to as “Stephenson gauge track.” Interestingly, Stephenson worked briefly with Trevithick in South America and purchase Trevithick, who was poor, a ticket back to England.
George Stephenson met and arguably built on Trevithick’s work but also engineered much of his own. The first real locomotive engine, called the Blucher, was capable of carrying 30 tons of coal at 40 miles an hour, an unheard of task at the time. Besides building engines, Stephenson also went on to build the infrastructure for them, including countless bridges still standing today.
His son, Robert, took over the business and became enormously wealthy, the first railroad barons. Father and son are buried in Holy Trinity Church, alongside England’s most influential people in history.