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George Stephenson

George Stephenson

Expertise

Rail

Location

United Kingdom
Career highlights

Inventor of the Stephenson’s gauge

Pioneer of the first railway steam locomotive

Founder of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE)

Why you might have heard of George Stephenson

George Stephenson was an English civil and mechanical engineer who pioneered the Victorian railway.

This achievement led to him being known as the ‘Father of the railways,’ with his inventions viewed as outstanding examples of Victorian innovation. 

Perhaps the most enduring of Stephenson’s creations was the ‘Stephenson rail gauge’.

This model went on to form the basis for the standard gauge, of 4.8 1/2 inches, still used by most of the world’s railways. 

Personal life

George Stephenson was born in Wylam, Northumberland, England in 1781. As the son of a mechanic, who himself operated a Newcomen atmospheric-steam engine at a coal mine in Newcastle, it appears engineering was always in Stephenson’s blood.

Stephenson received no formal education and instead entered the world of work from an early age.

Aged seventeen, he became an engineman at Water Row Put in Newbury. By the age of nineteen, he was following in his father’s footsteps by operating a Newcomen machine.

Shortly after completing his education at night school, he married Frances Henderson and went on to have a son, Robert Stephenson, in 1803, followed by their second child, a daughter, Frances, in 1805.

Tragically the Stephenson’s daughter died after just three weeks. Stephenson’s wife, Frances, later died of tuberculosis in 1806 and was buried in St Bartholomew's Church, the same churchyard their daughter was buried in.

He married his second wife, Elizabeth, the daughter of Thomas Hindmarsh, a wealthy farmer, in 1820. Elizabeth died in 1845, and three years following his wife’s death, he married his housekeeper, Ellen Gregory, who was the daughter of a farmer in Bakewell.

Around this time, Stephenson’s health was beginning to fail, and he died of pleurisy at Tapton House, near Chesterfield, on the 12 August 1848.

The centenary of Stephenson’s birth was celebrated in Newcastle on the 09 of June 1881.

Image credit

Profile image: Wikimedia Commons

Banner image: Train Photos (licensed)

Fascinating facts

Stephenson’s invention of the ‘Stephenson rail gauge’ was influenced by the horse and cart, which used a similar dimension of 4ft 8 inches between wheels.

His only son, Robert Stephenson, followed in his father’s footsteps. He was responsible for designing Stephenson’s Rocket and conceived a novel tubular design for bridges, resulting in several bridges being built in this fashion.

George Stephenson was a self-taught engineer.

Notable projects

The Geordie lamp

Blucher, the first steam locomotive

Locomotive No1

Liverpool and Manchester Railways

Stephenson's rocket

The Grand Junction Railway

Membership of societies

Founder of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). He was appointed the institution’s first president in 1847.