Issue 13                                                                                                                                      
March 2017
Steam is the theme of this issue - mainly, though not entirely, as a means of locomotion.

The history of human progress transcends national boundaries, as even the most cursory study of invention and discovery must show. Yet it is just as undeniable that progress is not linear: it proceeds in fits and starts, stalling and accelerating in different places and at different times.

So it was that in Britain, 300 years ago, engineering began to build up a particular head of steam. From Thomas Newcomen's first working steam engine in 1711/12, through James Watt's improvements, Richard Trevithick's moving engines and George Stephenson's first steam locomotive in 1814, steam heritage is a peculiarly British tale.
... starting with the man who never paid for his ticket

As Phase One of the UK's highly controversial High Speed rail project (HS2) gains Royal Assent, engineering timelines invites you to reflect on a life before rail. Start by taking a look at our brand new online biography of George Stephenson, often called the "Father of the Railways".

It may strike readers how Stephenson's earliest biographer, Samuel Smiles, never misses a chance to emphasize the miles covered by Stephenson and his contemporaries by carriage, on horseback and on foot. In later life, it is claimed, Stephenson was able to travel the land without ever paying for a ticket - his apt reward (among others) for his founding role in creating the rail network.
George Stephenson, "Father of the Railways", in a posthumous engraving after an earlier painting by John Lucas. Besides the extraordinary importance of his engineering advances, he was a founding member and the inaugural president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which features frequently in this issue of engineering timelines newsletter.

image : W Holl engraving circa 1849; archives of IMechE
Steam locomotive revivals across the UK

A year ago, engineering timelines newsletter welcomed the return of Sir Nigel Gresley's Flying Scotsman to the rails after a decade out of action, and we applauded the growing revival of interest in heritage railways, with the successful reopening of several lines.

Fast forward (no-one at engineering timelines would dream of saying, "full steam ahead") to February 2017, which brought news of a rebuilt Tornado, a Peppercorn Class A locomotive, running scheduled services on the Settle & Carlisle line between Appleby in Cumbria and Skipton in North Yorkshire. There's a great report on it here - a favourite aspect being the bewildered/ delighted commuters who bought tickets as usual and turned up, in the midst of all the steam fans, to find themselves in the carriages of a steam locomotive last seen in the 1960s.

Sadly, the ticket office of the Settle & Carlisle Railway has confirmed that this was a three-day event with no plans to repeat.

However, there is plenty to celebrate. The line, which has been partially closed since a landslip in February 2016, will be officially reopened on 31st March by The Flying Scotsman, which is busily touring the nation since its return to working condition last year. Tickets are still available for the event - or if it's too far to go, you can catch The Flying Scotsman on a heritage line nearer to you.
The Tornado steams over Ribblehead Viaduct on one of its scheduled journeys between Skipton and Appleby in February. The locomotive has been rebuilt with modern safety adjustments, but largely to the design of Arthur H Peppercorn, the last chief mechanical engineer of the London & North Eastern Railway. The rebuild project was financed and carried out the by the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust.

photo: copyright Mike Glen via the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust
Having rebuilt and released the Tornado, the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust is deep into its next project: the build of Gresley's never-fully-realised class P2 Mikado steam locomotive design of the early 1940s.  The Trust's locomotive, the No. 2007 Prince of Wales, is the subject of an Institution of Mechanical Engineers' technical lecture in Swindon on 10th April.  Limited numbers of tickets are still available - check here for details.

Visit the Trust's own site for more information about the project and a video of the build in action, featuring Top Gear's James May and a slacking cock flange.
The 75th anniversary of the death of Sir Nigel Gresley, designer of super fast and powerful steam locomotives that included the Flying Scotsman and (topically) the Mallard, was commemorated last year with the installation of a statue in London's Kings Cross Station. Members of the public made clear their objection (on left) to the Gresley Trust's veto of the duck that sculptor Hazel Reeves had intended to accompany Sir Nigel (on right).

Photographs: copyright (left) and (right)
No-one would claim that heritage is without its controversies - some, perhaps, more serious than others. Engineering timelines would love any kind of update on the progress or otherwise of the campaign to reinstate the mallard duck alongside the bronze statue of the great 20th century steam locomotive engineer, Sir Nigel Gresley, installed at Kings Cross station in London just a year ago.

For any readers who weren't glued to the news of this spat at the time, sculptor Hazel Reeves proposed to feature the duck alongside a seven-foot Sir Nigel as a way of sparking the interest of the casual passerby in his achievements - which included the design of the Mallard, the fastest steam locomotive ever built. Incidentally, in later life Sir Nigel's interests included breeding waterfowl: how perfect.

However, family members on the board of the Gresley Trust objected and the bird was removed from the final design, to the total outrage - as it turned out - of many Gresley fans out there. You can read one of many contemporary reports here.
Banbury standing steam engine factory at dusk.... The buildings have been saved from demolition by a concerted campaign by the local Civic Society that included the support of Historic England.  What now? If you're local, do let engineering timelines know of any developments.

Photograph: copyright The Banbury Guardian
From one passionate heritage argument to another: last year, this newsletter reported on the struggle of Banbury Civic Society to save a local Victorian steam engine factory from demolition. It seems that the campaign was successful and the planning application has been dropped - great news, which begs the question of how the building is to be used in a way that does protect and even highlight local heritage.

Perhaps in years to come we'll see a revitalized Banbury steam engine factory appear in the Steam Heritage Guide, itself an increasingly venerable institution, and the UK's most comprehensive guide to steam-related events. The 2017 edition is out now and can be bought at

Meanwhile, in Cambridge... did somebody say "Steam"? The Victorian sewage pumping station there, now home to the Cambridge Museum of Technology, was one of the subjects of a recent Singing History Concert conceived of and organized by professional history popularisers, History Works. The Hathorn Davey steam pumps there are worthy of a hymn or two, being the only engines of their type in the world that are still running.
Local primary school children sing songs of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) and actual steam and, er, sewage with History Works in Cambridge.

photo : copyright
Moving swiftly forwards and getting off the ground

Pumps and locomotives may be headline protagonists of Britain's Industrial Revolution - but what of steam's other possibilities for propulsion?

Engineering timelines is intrigued by the activities of the contemporary steam-powered car enthusiasts, whose AGM has just taken place (on 20th March). Once we take to the roads, the history of steam-propelled motion becomes a far more international story, with the French and the Americans in important roles. gives a nicely summarised history from which to start.

Similarly, the (short) history of steam-powered flight is international in flavour. Blog's lively account of the Besler brothers' success includes a YouTube movie with footage from the actual event - take a look.
Oakland, California was the site of the world's only successful steam-powered plane flight, in 1933.  You can read the full contemporary account as published in Popular Science Monthly (pictured above) on, via the link below.

image : via blog
There's no reason why the Beslers' should be the LAST successful steam-powered flight, though!  One of the excellent qualities of engineers, past and present, is that they never stop trying. Just one example in the public domain is engineer Geoff Wolfe's blog,

As an aside: the drive to enquire is a fascinating topic in itself.  Professor John Agar's forthcoming lecture, The curious history of curiosity-driven research at the Royal Society in London on 4th April promises to be a tantalising introduction to the topic.  It's open to the public and it's free, so take your curious mind along.

But before we leave propulsion completely behind, another engineering blogger, Dr Robert E. Bauxbaum in Michigan, USA turns his thoughts (among many things) to the future of steamships. Dr Bauxbaum is no stranger to modern steam, either, as a read of his blog makes clear.

Thought-provoking stuff.  For - as the Newcomen Society's 19th April lecture on ICI Billingham and Steam Reforming demonstrates - modern steam uses very different processes than the methods of steam propulsion that we frequently celebrate. Steam engines as such, those giants of our industrial heritage, for now appear truly consigned to the past.
Join-in with Ning
  Did you know that there is an engineering timelines discussion forum? New and intelligent opinions are always welcome. It is free, and easy to sign up. So share your wisdom and start talking about the topics you care about today!