The question of who invented the train is actually quite a complicated one, and the history of the train can actually be traced back for thousands of years. From here, incremental steps were taken which allows us to end up with the trains that we are familiar with today. It is therefore not possible to identify one person as the inventor of the train. Here is a brief look at the development of the train.
Early examples of wagonways have been documented, dating back as far as the 2nd and 1st millennia BC. To create these wagonways, either rails were put down on which wagons could run or grooves were cut into the ground which would guide the wagon along a fixed line. These wagons were either powered by humans, or pulled by horses or bulls. These types of “tracks” have been discovered near Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian historical sites. Wagonways during this period were mainly used to connect trading posts or to bring rocks or stones from mines to construction sites, rather than for leisure or public transportation purposes.
The wagon ways were also very popular in the Greek empire. After the fall of the Greek empire, wagonways largely fell out of fashion, until increased trade in the 16th century increased the need for good transport links. Several small advances were made in track and wagon design, to help to improve usage, however wagons still relied on human or horse power.
The first steam-powered engine was invented in 1698 by Thomas Savery, although this machine was not intended for powering rail vehicles. Whilst the engine could be used for its intended purpose (raising water), there were several serious flaws in the design. However, other engineers and inventors were able to use this as inspiration for their own creations.
The first self-propelled steam engine was invented by James Watt, with the help of his assistant William Murdoch, over 60 years after Savery trialled his designs. They were able to create a working model, but they did not produce a full scale locomotive which was able to pull wagons. It was not until 1804 that a full scale locomotive was created by Richard Trevithick. This locomotive completed the first ever steam-powered rail journey on 21st February 1804, pulling 5 carriages, 10 tonnes of iron and 70 passengers. Unfortunately, there were still many major flaws in Trevithick’s designs, and they were not widely adopted. Trevithick’s work went largely unrecognised at the time, and he died penniless and alone.
In the following 20 years, locomotives were created by a range of inventors, who each made adaptations to designs, to try to find something that would be successful and feasible for commercial use. George Stephenson built on the designs of his forerunners, and produced the Locomotion No 1, which was used on the first public steam railway in the world, between Stockton and Darlington. He commercialised his success by creating a company which produced locomotives for sale for both commercial and public transportation purposes.
Electric trains were first introduced in the 1880’s, following on from the successful introduction of an electric tramline in Berlin, Germany, which was built by Werner von Siemens. Electric powered vehicles became more feasible and more practical over the next decades, and a large number of electric powered railways were constructed worldwide. These systems used with overhead wires, or an electrified rail.
The trains that we see today were mainly developed based on early electric train designs or diesel powered train designs. However, inventors and engineers continue to pioneer new designs which may revolutionise train travel in the future.