The renowned British engineer George Stephenson was born on this day in 1781. Few people may recognize the name today but during his lifetime he was called the “Father of Railways.” He was instrumental in the advancement of rail transportation, a key component of the Industrial Revolution.
The standard rail gauge, with its 4-foot 8.5-inch distance between the rails, was his design. Besides designing locomotives and railway bridges, he invented the miner’s safety lamp. In a time before battery-powered illumination, it allowed miners to light their way without risking a gas explosion. This so-called Geordie lamp may be the reason that inhabitants of Tyneside, a coal-mining area of northeast England, call themselves Geordies.
One of the most inspiring things about Stephenson is that although he was didn’t attend school as a child, he paid for his own education to learn mathematics and reading at the age of 17. George’s son Robert followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a great railway engineer in his own right. Robert Stephenson appears as a character in Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated steampunk film, Steamboy, which I reviewed on this blog on 1/4/2018.
Another interesting fact was that although both George and Robert were offered knighthood by the British Crown for their accomplishments, both refused the honor. I haven’t been able to find an explanation for their reason, though it seems unlikely to have been a political statement such as John Lennon’s antiwar protest. Perhaps it was akin to the reasoning of fellow engineer/inventor Harry Ferguson, who said that the honor should be reserved to servicemen and statesman.
As a history buff and steampunk, I’ve always held a fascination with trains though I have only had the occasion to travel in that fashion a handful of times. It’s a shame that the USA has not followed the lead of places such as Europe and China in creating high-speed passenger railways. Perhaps someday our country will see the value of George Stephenson’s legacy.