Book Review: The Victorian Steam Locomotive: It’s Design & Development 1804-1879

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In the forward to G. D. Dempsey and D. K. Clarke’s (2015) The Victorian Steam Locomotive: It’s Design & Development 1804-1879, Dr. Pete Waterman begins by stating that even people who are enthusiastic about the age of steam power can sometimes be blasé about its history. It is hard in this day and age of technological wonders to comprehend the magnitude of the innovative process behind the development of the steam engine. In just over 90 years we moved from the simple idea of boiling water, to making steam to generate power, to the steam engine we know to this day. As Waterman explains, the engine design has not significantly changed since the Victorian era; it has been tweaked here and there, but essentially remains the same. For those of us who are steam train enthusiasts, we might say that it is hard to improve on perfection!

“A locomotive engine followed by a train of carriages always impress the spectator as a remarkable exhibition of inanimate power” (Dempsey & Clark, 2015, viii). The book begins with a quotation from Dempsey’s original work which had been published in the 1970s. Clarke revised it for the 2015 edition and added a section on modern English steam engines to provide a contrast between the two styles in a manner understandable for casual readers and yet practical enough for a more advanced student of engineering.

The first part of the book focuses on a historical sketch and a description of the locomotive engine. This is the part of the work where it is easy to become lost for hours, reading about the development of the engine, the specifications and innovations, and the aspects and incentives that drove these inventors to create a steam-powered mechanical revolution.

Within the first few pages the reader learns about the trials and tribulations of creating this type of a transport. The trains with their smoke and disruptive noise, were not always embraced by the local population and inventors were pressed to create engines that mitigated these objections while at the same time being economical. One example of this occurred as the railway line was being laid between Liverpool and Manchester. As Dempsey and Clark (2015) relate, the directors of the line were even considering using horses or stationary steam engines that would draw the carriages with ropes or chains along the track rather than locomotives. Instead the directors created a competition for designers. Among other criteria, the design had to include an engine that 1) consumed its own smoke, 2) had two safety-valves, 3) springs and six wheels, and 4) a price of 500 pounds or less.

On the day of the competition, only three out of five engines were prepared for the trial. Two were disabled by accidents during the trial itself and the engine designed by George and Robert Stephenson was declared the winner. They were awarded 500 pounds by the directors for their efforts (Dempsey & Clark, 2015).

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From The Victorian Steam Locomotive: It’s Design & Development 1804-1879

Following the story of the competition, the book then describes in great detail how the engine was constructed:

The boiler was cylindrical, 6 feet long, and 3 feet 4 inches in diameter, and contained twenty-five copper tubes, 3 inches in diameter, through which the heated air from the furnace passed on its way towards the chimney. The furnace, situated at the rear end of the engine, was 2 feet wide and 3 feet high, and had an external casing, between which and the fire-box a space of 3 inches was provided . . . (Dempsey & Clark, 2015, p. 11)

The text provides sufficient information, along with diagrams and sketches, so that an engineer could re-create the 1829 engine in exacting detail.

In subsequent chapters the authors discuss the history and use of different English types of locomotives. This leads into the modern locomotive and comparisons of those engines still in use today versus their earlier counterparts. The final section is titled the “Resistance of Trains” and deals not with social issues, but with the frictional resistance to traction on a line of rails and the resistance of gravitation on inclined planes. This is a short section, but the authors provide a very good explanation of the math involved. I am not an engineer, but I found this section to be enjoyable because of the clear manner in which the information is presented.

If you enjoy learning about steam locomotives, their history, and even practical engineering advice on recreating an engine of your own, The Victorian Steam Locomotive: It’s Design & Development 1804-1879 is a book worth reading.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Victorian Steam Locomotive: It’s Design & Development 1804-1879

  1. Putting this on my To-Read list! Steamy!
    (“Cool” doesn’t fit. 😉 )
    Not long ago, I got the full Steam Library from Your Old Time Bookstore and started studying the book set. As an ex-machinist, the mechanics of steam engines fascinate me.
    The Victorian Steam Locomotive… sounds like it’d be a good addition to my growing steam-power library. 🙂


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