Stephenson's Rocket

Classic Projects: Stephenson's Rocket

It wasn’t the first or the most important steam locomotive, but Stephenson’s Rocket has become an undisputed engineering classic.

In 1829 the Science Museum claims that it ‘changed the future’, but it wasn’t a conventional revolution. George Stephenson’s canary yellow Rocket steam locomotive is an unusual icon of engineering in that it wasn’t anything particularly new. And yet how it achieved its fame will be familiar, as it was the first time that several new technologies were brought together as the blue print of what steam locomotives would be like for the next 150 years.In 1829 it scooped the Rainhill Trials held by the London and Manchester Railway to identify a design of locomotive that would launch mass intercity travel. Despite the worst of starts in public relations terms, the locomotive was a runaway success. The railway network expanded quickly and people were able to move across the world.

As with many innovations not everyone was ready for the Rocket. Thundering along at previously unimaginable speeds (up to 35mph), early steam locomotives were a frightening prospect for their Georgian passengers. Before the opening of the first major railway line, the Liverpool & Manchester in 1830, there were fears it would be impossible to breathe while travelling at such a velocity.

Leading actress of the day, Fanny Kemble wrote: "You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be, journeying on thus without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace."

Project briefing

By the early 1800s the means of powering the railway had still not been decided. Some favoured haulage by fixed engines and ropes while others advocated the ‘locomotive’. George Stephenson, Liverpool & Manchester’s Engineer of the Line wanted locomotive power, but he met with staunch opposition. Following a report by consulting engineers Walker and Rastrick, a prize of £500 was offered for the successful construction of a locomotive engine. The winner would weigh no more than 6t and had to travel along a track for 60 miles (97km).

The competition

Stephenson immediately understood the significance of the competition trial at Rainhill and he set about designing Rocket. There were five entries, shortly reduced to three. Rocket behaved well, outperforming Novelty and Sans Pareil (which blew red hot cinders out of its chimney). Rocket won a clear victory, but the impact was more serious than merely bagging the prize money. In October 1829, Rocket set a new benchmark for reliability, establishing the viability of the steam locomotive.


There is a question mark over who designed Rocket. George Stephenson had designed several locomotives, but none as complex as Rocket. When Rocket was being built at the Forth Banks Works, George was overseeing the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. His son Robert was managing director of Robert Stephenson and Company. Although receiving advice from his father, much of the credit for Rocket is given to Robert.


What gave Rocket the edge over previous designs was its multi-tubular boiler that improved heat transfer from the firebox gases into the boiler water. This was coupled with the setting of the cylinders outside the boiler at an angle of 45° (later modified to almost horizontal). These basic design principles carried through to the last steam locomotives built in Britain during the 1960s.

Public relations disaster

The Liverpool and Manchester railway opened in October 1830 with a gala event attended by A-list celebrities including the Duke of Wellington. At one stage there were eight trains on the double-track line – an accident waiting to happen and MP for Liverpool William Huskisson was run down and killed by Rocket. Despite the obvious and ironic PR disaster, the event was considered a great success and the engineering achievement of Stephenson propelled him further towards fame and fortune.

Facts and figures

By the early Victorian era passenger numbers had soared. In 1854 alone, 92 million journeys were made in England and Wales on a network stretching 6,000 miles. Train travel had caught the public imagination and the rapid expansion of the railways had an effect on every aspect of Victorian society. This effect was to be long lasting, as in 2002 George Stephenson made the BBC list of the top 100 greatest Britons. Today Stephenson’s rail gauge (of 4 ft 8½in, or 1,435mm) is the world’s standard gauge for rail tracks.

Delivery and legacy

The Rocket, more than any other locomotive from the age of the railway, arguably the technical turning point of the 19th century. This is when civilization lurched from its carbon-neutral agricultural identity to the carbon-hungry industrial world of today. One commenter said: “The steam engine drove the economic boom that literally shook the world.” Anti-industrialists claim that with the steam engine and locomotives, Britain was transformed from a green and pleasant land to that of dark satanic mills.

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