British inventor Richard Trevithick takes seven of his friends for a test ride on his “Puffing Devil,” or “Puffer,” the first steam-powered passenger vehicle, on this day in 1801. Unlike the steam engine pioneered by the Scotsman James Watt, Trevithick’s used “strong steam”–that is, steam at a very high pressure (145 pounds per square inch, or psi, compared to the Watt engine’s 5 psi, which enabled him to build an engine small enough to fit in his “Puffer” car. Trevithick’s engines were undoubtedly more dangerous than Watt’s, but they were also extremely versatile: They could be put to work in mines, on farms, in factories, on ships and in locomotives of all kinds.
Trevithick was born in 1771 in a mining village in Cornwall, England. He was a terrible student–his teachers thought he was a “disobedient, slow, obstinate, [and] spoiled boy” who would never amount to anything, and in fact he was basically illiterate his entire life–but he loved to tinker with tools and machines. In 1790, Trevithick went to work as a steam-engine repairman, first at the Wheal Treasury mine and then at the Ding Dong mine. In his off hours, he worked on an invention of his own: a steam locomotive that would be powerful enough to carry people and things but compact enough to be practical.
On Christmas Eve 1801, Trevithick’s Puffer (so named because it puffed steam into the atmosphere) was ready at last. The machine had a pressure-operated piston connected to a cylindrical horizontal boiler and was large enough to seat all the onlookers who were eager to accompany Trevithick on his test run. (The car chugged steadily uphill, one of those passengers reported, “like a little bird…going faster than I could walk.”) A few days later, however, the amazing Puffer was destroyed when it overheated and caught fire.
In 1804, at the Penydarren Ironworks in Wales, Trevithick built the first-ever steam locomotive to run along a track. It pulled five cars loaded with ten tons of iron and 70 ironworkers about nine miles, and chugging along at about five miles per hour. Unfortunately, it was also so heavy that it broke its rails and was retired after just three trips. In 1808, a similar locomotive–dubbed the “Catch-me-who-can”–hauled daredevil passengers in a circle around Torrington Square in London. (The rails eventually broke there, too.)
Trevithick died in poverty in 1833, but his inventions lived on. Without a doubt, he was one of the most important figures of the industrial age.