Liverpool, September 15, 1830. It is 10.40 in the morning. A cannon is fired and eight locomotives, each with a silk flag and a different color as its badge, slowly start up and move along the rails that will lead them to the city of Manchester. There are more than 50,000 spectators and dozens of privileged passengers, including personalities such as the Duke of Wellington, Prime Minister of the country, the Austrian ambassador and various representatives of Parliament.
They are witnessing one of the key moments of the so-called Industrial Revolution: the inauguration of the Liverpool-Manchester railway, the first railway line for the transport of passengers and cargo that worked exclusively with steam locomotives.
During the first decade of the 19th century, British merchants became increasingly aware of a problem: the country's economy had grown faster than its now clearly obsolete infrastructure. An imbalance that threatened to put a brake on the flourishing British economic development and, therefore, had to be corrected as soon as possible. The transportation revolution was underway.
The case of cities like Liverpool and Manchester was paradigmatic. The first had one of the busiest ports in Europe. Ships loaded with cotton from Africa, the West Indies and the United States arrived at it. From there it was sent to Manchester, where the most important textile factories in the country were. It was done by sailing through the canals, a slow and expensive means of transportation. Cotton was said to take longer to reach Manchester from Liverpool than the 21 days it took to cross the Atlantic from New York.
There was also land transport, especially passengers, through stagecoaches. A medium that, apart from being slow, was extremely uncomfortable due to the conditions in which the roads were, in worse condition than those left by the Romans fourteen centuries ago.
Businessmen from both cities were quick to join forces to find a solution. Joseph Sanders, a major corn merchant from Liverpool, and John Kennedy, owner of the largest textile factory in Manchester, were the most determined to end the abusive conditions of river transport and seek economic and effective alternatives.
To do this they used the ideas and work of William James, a civil engineer who had written about the possibility of creating a railway line between cities. James owned several coal mines where he used tracks to haul loads by horse or rope pulled by fixed steam engines. Satisfied with the efficiency of those systems, he was one of the first to guess that they could be the seed for the construction of a national railway network.
Sanders and Kennedy, along with several other investors, founded the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company in 1823. The initial survey of the line was carried out by William James and Robert Stephenson, the son of engineer George Stephenson. The latter, who was finishing the construction of the largest mining railway in Great Britain between Stockton and Darlington, would end up taking over the direction of the works when James' inability to do so was demonstrated.
His son Robert also left the position, he went to work as an engineer in the gold mines of Colombia. A decision that fueled the rumors, never proven, about a possible confrontation with his father.
Parliament rejected a first project due to calculation errors and problems with the owners of the land through which the route passed. Construction began in 1826. It was a technical challenge: a 48-kilometre route in which tons of earth and rocks had to be excavated by hand so that the line ran with the least unevenness possible. In addition, anticipating the amount of traffic that would circulate through it, the promoters decided that it should be built with a double track.
The method of pulling the wagons was the company's great dilemma. Which was appropriate: the drag by means of ropes pulled by fixed machines used in the mines or the use of locomotives? Opinions were divided. Stephenson insisted on traction by means of steam locomotives, but many of the members of the board of directors did not trust machines that were still slow, loud, suffered from mechanical failures and were dangerous, having even exploded.
The success of cable traction was a fact. It offered more security. The project consisted of placing machines every kilometer and a half to pull the trains using ropes. But it was soon seen that it had a drawback: if just one of the machines broke down, it would paralyze the entire line.
What is evident is that the option of using locomotives was unthinkable without its improvement. They had to be faster and safer than the existing ones. To gauge its development, a competition was created to choose the best locomotive of the moment. The contest had a cash prize and was open to anyone who wanted to participate.
Despite numerous requests, only three locomotives made it to the day of the test in racing condition. One was Novelty, created by the Swedish engineer John Ericsson and the British John Braithwaite, who found out about the contest by chance two months before the celebration. The second was the Sans Pareil, built by Timothy Hackworth, who worked at Stephenson's works and was superintendent on the Stockton-Darlington line. And the third was the Rocket, the one designed by George Stephenson and his son Robert.
The Novelty was the lightest of the three, but at one point in the journey the water pump failed and he had to abandon. The Sans Pareil, despite being overweight, completed several sections of the route at a good pace, but a faulty cylinder broke and ended its participation. The part had left Stephenson's factory, fueling rumors of possible fraud.
The Rocket, which was not the fastest but the safest, completed the course and was the winner. It had a particularity, a technical characteristic that minimized the risks of breakdowns and increased steam production without adding cost in coal. It was the multi-tube boiler, a boiler built with 25 tubes that made heat transfer between exhaust gases and water much more efficient.
Despite the fact that the credit for the construction of the Rocket has been taken by George Stephenson, it was the son who, advised by his father, designed the locomotive, with the invaluable help of Henry Booth, in charge of organizing the competition, who was attributes the idea of the multitubular boiler. The Stephensons secured the prize and the contract to produce locomotives for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
That morning in September 1830, the Liverpool-Manchester line was officially inaugurated, the first passenger line exclusively powered by steam locomotives. Eight machines left Liverpool station, including the Rocket, already outdated just a year later compared to the new ones created in the Stephenson factory, but which, as the winner of the Rainhill test, could not be missing.
The Northumbrian, the most advanced locomotive of the moment, led by Stephenson led the procession. Among the passengers were Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, and William Huskisson, the representative of the city of Liverpool in Parliament. The locomotive stopped about 30 km from Liverpool to refuel with water and fuel, when Huskisson took the opportunity to get out of the wagon and go to greet the duke, seated in another.
Standing on the opposite track, Huskisson was conversing with Wellesley without noticing that the Rocket was approaching at high speed behind him. Without enough time or agility to react (he was 60 years old), the parliamentarian was run over by the locomotive, which crushed his left leg.
After applying a tourniquet, he was rushed to Eccles, the nearest town. Stephenson himself did it, after unhooking all the Northumbrian carriages except the first, in which he placed the wounded man. Despite the speed, Huskisson lost a lot of blood and died that same afternoon. He became the first victim of a railway accident.
But the incidents of the day did not end there. The Duke of Wellington, leader of the most radical wing of the Conservative Party, was not going to be well received by the people of Manchester. When the convoy arrived in the city, the popular classes showed their disagreement with the prime minister's policy, receiving him with insults, stones and bricks. One more episode in the wave of riots that was breaking out across the country. The entourage decided to return to Liverpool as soon as possible. Two months later, the duke would be removed as prime minister and replaced by Lord Grey.
As a result of the success of the line, the British railway would experience a spectacular boom, and it became a world reference. The kilometers of track multiplied throughout the country, as well as the companies that promoted and exploited such a profitable business. The days of the channels and the diligences were numbered. The transportation revolution was underway, and full steam ahead.
This text is part of an article published in number 481 of the Historia y Vida magazine. Do you have something to contribute? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.