Richard Trevithick was an engineer whose inventions were at the cutting edge of his day, at a time when the industrial revolution was sweeping the globe with innovations. Were he alive today, I can imagine that Trevithick would be scribbling ideas on his I-pad for vehicles that run on solar power and thinking up creative ways to heat our homes. He would be at the forefront of today’s technology developments, pushing the boundaries exactly as he did back in his day.
Richard was born in a cottage a mile or so from Dolcoath Mine, where his father was a mine Captain. His curiosity about the engineering aspects of the mining area that he grew up in began when he was very young. Stories abound of him playing truant from school to hang out around the mines. This led to him pioneering new technology to use high pressure steam and increase the efficiency of the engines used to pump out the natural water that gathers in the lower levels of the tin and copper mines. At the time there was opposition to his ideas. He was called mad and dangerous but he persisted, and high pressure steam engines became the norm.
Although mostly remembered for his innovative approach to the uses of steam power, Trevithick’s inventive mind was never still – his ideas ranged from the first successful self-powered road vehicle and a steam railway engine to schemes for wreck salvage, iron cargo containers, land reclamation, mechanical refrigeration, agricultural machinery, water heating for homes, and for tunnelling under the Thames. Many of his ideas have since been developed by others and become reality. One of Trevithick’s last ideas, for a competition for a memorial to the “Reform Bill” was for a thousand feet high cast iron column with an air operated lift to convey passengers up the inside!
Trevithick’s career spanned the dawn of the industrial revolution, a time when Cornwall’s engineering prowess was the envy of the world. Trevithick had a sense of adventure, leading him to spend eleven years in South America working for owners of silver mines. His steam engines were located at several sites throughout Britain and he created a railway in South Wales (where they also put on a commemorative event!).
Detail from Trevitihck’s statue
Richard Trevithick is buried in an unmarked grave at Dartford, Kent, where he was working when he died. Like many great men and women, Trevithick did not get the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. He did not acquire riches either – any wealth that came Trevithick’s way soon disappeared as he ploughed it back into developing his next idea. Ironically one of the few relics of his lifetime in the museum in Truro is his purse!
Camborne, of course, is where Trevithick’s steam powered Road Carriage made its debut journey in 1801. This was the first time that a full sized vehicle had been able to run on a roadway under its own power. A replica of the Road Carriage has been built by enthusiasts, and this may be viewed on Trevithick Day.
The area around Camborne continued to be known as one that abounded with engineering inventiveness long after the times of Trevithick. Today, there is still cutting edge innovation in technology in the area.
Dedicating Camborne’s special day to Richard Trevithick is not just a tribute to the man himself, but a reminder of the way an open mind gets excited by new ideas. Trevithick’s example is a reminder to have bigger vision, to take risks, to believe in yourself and what you could accomplish even when faced with opposition and to follow your dreams and your passion because you want to, not because there might be money in it. It is a reminder to look forward to the future as well as looking back at the engineering history of the area – and to enjoy the festivities of the day with the enthusiasm that Trevithick projected throughout his lifetime.