Early life and education
Robert Stephenson was born on 16 October 1803 in Willington Quay
, near Newcastle. He was the only son of George Stephenson, who was then an engineman at the nearby works. His father's passionate interest in the workings and potential of engines was then in its infancy; it was to shape the life of father and son, and all who came after them.
The family soon moved to Killingworth, where Robert's mother, Frances, died of consumption before he was three. George Stephenson was responsible for the engines at Killingworth colliery but several set-backs, including the ill-health of his own parents, put a strain on his income and he also worked in the evenings, cleaning and mending watches. Robert attended the village school at Long Benton.
In 1812, George was made enginewright at Killingworth and his fortunes began to improve. Feeling that his own lack of formal education he had taught himself to read when he was 18 had been a disadvantage, he sent his son to Bruce's academy in Newcastle as soon as he was able. Robert was then 11 years old. His father also paid for him to become a member of the Literary and Philosophical society, which gave him access to a fine library.
At the end of a day's study, having returned home on his donkey, Robert was expected to recount for his father's benefit the contents of whatever he had read in the library that day. George insisted that his son learn to read technical drawings, without notation, as clearly as if they were written descriptions. The experience stood him in good stead, many years later, in managing the complexities of the massive railway-building schemes.
Robert left school in 1819 and was apprenticed to the viewer at Killingworth. By this time, his father was deeply involved in the development of steam power for haulage, having produced his first locomotive four years earlier. In 1821, Robert was George's assistant as surveyor for a new rail track from Stockton to Darlington.
The following year he left for Edinburgh to study for six months at the university, after which he took the head position at the family's newly-established locomotive factory in Newcastle. It was the first locomotive factory in the world.
Unfortunately, Robert's health was not robust and he soon became too ill to work. He was offered a job as chief engineer for a mining concern in South America and, as his doctor confirmed that the warmer weather would do him good, he left for Columbia in June 1824. The project was as frustrating and ultimately, not very fruitful, but Stephenson acquitted himself well. At the end of his three-year contract he was glad to hear that his father needed his assistance in England, and he declined to renew. He reached home in November 1827.