Return to Cornwall
In October 1827, Trevithick returned from exploring South America without the fortune that had eluded him all his life. Yet he received a hero's welcome in Cornwall — church bells were rung and he was "entertained at the tables of the county and borough members, and all the first-class of gentlemen in the west of Cornwall".
He rejoined his family at the White Hart Inn in Hayle, where his wife Jane was the landlady. She and their six children were all in good health — a testament to her care in an era in which around two in every 10 children died young.
Trevithick's youngest child, Frederick, had been born in the year of his departure for Lima, 11 years earlier. His eldest child, also called Richard, had been 18 years old at the time and must have taken his responsibilities as head of the family seriously for he never married, and he lived with his mother in later life. But now four of his offspring were in their twenties and only the two youngest sons were still at school.
England too had changed during in his absence, with many technical developments that owed their origins to his genius. High pressure steam engines were used routinely for a variety of applications, both stationary and mobile. Rail locomotion was progressing from the hauling of minerals to passenger and freight services, and steam coaches travelled the roads.
On 10th November 1827, Trevithick declared details of his first patent for more than a decade — New methods for centring ordnance on pivots, facilitating the charge of the same and reducing manual labour in time of action. The design of naval guns had changed little since the mid 18th century and the 2 tonne cannons used aboard Nelson's ship Victory each required a crew of nine men. Trevithick's gun was held in a cradle that moved to absorb the recoil and included a mechanism for reloading, so that the cannon could be operated by just two men. The Admiralty rejected the idea and the patent was not issued.
This setback didn't stop Trevithick. He and James Gerard, his fellow adventurer in Costa Rica, remained convinced of the potential riches contained in the Cordillera mines. They resumed their goal of trying to form a company to develop them. An offer of £8,000 was made to them for their South American copper-mining grant from a consortium that included Michael Williams of United Mines. Trevithick believed their interests were worth more and rejected it, but no further offers were tendered. Gerard then went to the Netherlands and France in the hope of raising funds, only to die penniless in Paris (probably during 1828).
During in his time away, Trevithick's influence had continued through the improvements in efficiency that resulted from the high pressure steam engines and boilers he created. According to him, the Cornish mine captains acknowledged that his inventions had resulted in "a saving in the mines since I left of above £500,000, and that the present existence of the deep mines is owing to my inventions".
However, just as with Boulton & Watt, they were rather more reluctant to pay premiums on those savings. The difficulty was in attributing how much improvement came from his plunger pole engine, which was covered by a patent that did not expire until May 1830, and how much from his Cornish boiler, which was not patented. Eventually Trevithick accepted a £150 payment from Michael Williams in January 1828, but received nothing from other mine owners.
With help from his old friend and erstwhile mentor, Davies Gilbert (MP for Bodmin), Trevithick presented a petition to Parliament on 27th February 1828 detailing the usefulness of the Cornish boilers and listing his patented inventions. He hoped to recoup some royalties from his patents but his application failed. Fate ordained that others reaped the benefits of his ingenuity.
In July that year, Trevithick spent 10 days in the Netherlands investigating the feasibility of reclaiming land using steam engines to drain the water, apparently at the behest of the Steam Navigation Company. He also visited his nephew Nicholas Oliver Harvey (1803-61), who was then employed at the Fijnord Engineering Works in Rotterdam.
The land in the Netherlands is low-lying and ever-increasing flooding from the River Rhine had caused problems for some 250 years. The windmill-driven drainage pumps used were no longer effective against the rising waters. In 1828 almost half of the country was flooded. Trevithick's solution consisted of drainage canals and steam pumps mounted in barges. The Dutch government intended to enlarge the Rhine to 915m wide and 1.8m deep over a length of 80-97km. Trevithick also proposed to use steam-powered barges to carry the material excavated from the river to the Zuiderzee, an estuary of the Rhine, enclosing it with embankments and reclaiming more than 400,000ha of land.
Trevithick returned to England, and work on one of the new engines began at Harvey & Co
in Hayle, where his son Francis was an apprentice. A company was set up in London to handle the project. The high pressure condensing engine drove a metal ball and chain pump. Engine, boiler and pump were fitted into an iron barge 7.62m long, 4.27m wide and 1.83m high. The use of metal for all the parts must have made it very noisy to operate.
On 27th July 1829, Trevithick reported to Gilbert that during a trial the engine had lifted 32,730 litres of water 3m, giving it a calculated duty of 34.56 million. Despite the company wishing Francis to accompany the engine to the Netherlands and start it working, disagreements arose between the directors resulting in delays. Eventually the engine was scrapped.
Harvey & Co later built two of the three compound engines used to drain Haarlem Mere from 1845. Each had a 2.1m diameter high pressure cylinder and a 3.7m diameter low pressure cylinder. One survives — the largest steam engine in the world. The Zuiderzee was not to be reclaimed until the 20th century, when the 32km long Afsluitdijk (Enclosure Dam, completed in 1932) separated it from the Wadden Sea and parts were turned into polders — work continued until 1986.
While the Dutch engine was being manufactured, Trevithick revisited his 1808 idea of a 'nautical labourer'. He devised a small engine mounted on a wheeled chassis and on 27th September 1828 declared his intention to patent Certain new methods of machinery for discharging Ships' cargoes & other purposes. The engine was used successfully for hauling fishing nets aboard and for hoisting sails.
Trevithick was still assimilating the many advancements in steam power that had taken place during his absence. He found himself returning to the crucial question of how to improve the high pressure steam engine, and examined the changes made by Arthur Woolf (1766-1837) and Samuel Grose (1791-1866) who had both produced engines with duties in excess of 60 million.
He had already used the expansive quality of steam to good effect (at Cook's Kitchen mine in 1800), and wondered what would happen on superheating the steam well above boiling point. Experiments showed that heating the steam exiting the boiler could raise an engine's duty by 50%, using considerably less than 50% extra fuel. Then he thought about not topping up the boiler feed water but recycling condensed (or partly condensed) steam back to the boiler — he had invented the closed-cycle steam engine. He published his patent declaration for A new or improved steam engine on 27th March 1829.
This would have an immediate application for long sea voyages, where stops for fresh boiler water were impracticable and salt water would ruin the the boiler itself. Trevithick developed his ideas further with patents issued in 1831 and 1832, by which time he was living in London following a quarrel with Henry Harvey.
As he entered his 60th year, Trevithick had lost none of his talent for innovation.
portrait of Richard Trevithick Institution of Civil Engineers