As I trundled off along our old railway path on a foraging mission for elderberries this week, I was thinking about the ‘Wheels’ theme for Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge. The old railway inspired me to think about the special wheels of railway transport. Conveniently, a little further along the old railway there are a couple of old coal trucks on a length of track. They are parked there as an historical reminder of the many tons of coal that were hauled along this railway in the past. As I passed by, I took the opportunity to look closely at the large rusty iron wheels on these old railway trucks, particularly noticing the way the wheels are shaped to ride smoothly on the metal rails.
Flanged wheels were a very clever invention, weren’t they? When I returned home I decided to delve a little into the history of the use of flanged wheels for railway trucks and locomotives. I discovered that it was none other than the “father of the railways”, George Stephenson himself, who in 1814 was the first to successfully use flanged wheels on the first of his travelling steam engines, “Blücher”. Named after a Prussian general, the job of steam engine “Blücher” was to haul trucks of coal from the Killingworth Colliery along the Killingworth waggonway. At the time, Stephenson was the enginewright at this colliery, just to the north of Newcastle.
George Stephenson was born in 1781 in the village of Wylam, just a few miles from me. He had a life-long interest in engines and engineering, particularly relating to the coal industry, eventually opening an engineering works with his son, Robert, in Newcastle to manufacture locomotives. Railways were born out of the need to transport coal over our hilly terrain where canals, as had been built in other parts of Britain, were not suitable. Stephenson’s inspiration to build steam locomotives came from the Cornishman Richard Trevithick who had been the first to design this type of engine in 1802.
The gauge of railway tracks was another aspect of this mode of transport in which George Stephenson has left us his inventive legacy. Stephenson’s gauge of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches (1,435mm) is still known as ‘standard gauge’ and is still very widely used across the world today. Perhaps I shall take my tape measure the next time I pass by the old trucks and check the track measurement!
The local railway trucks on our old railway path are probably around 60-70 years old. I think the engineering on these industrial workhorses still looks impressive, if a little worn. I looked at some old images of the original locomotives built by George Stephenson to compare the wheels with my ‘modern’ ones. Sadly, the original “Blücher” locomotive has not survived – I read that its parts were recycled into other engines. However, below is an image that I believe is of a locomotive similar to “Blücher”, so you can see how it looked in its day.
It has been interesting learning a little more about railway wheels and their associated history. Please do take a look at other entries in Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge this week and see what wheels others have found.
J Peggy Taylor