George Stephenson was exposed to steam power at a very early age. He was born near Newcastle, England, on June 9, 1781. By the age of fourteen, George was assisting his father, who was a fireman for a steam-powered pump at a coal mine. Within three years, George too was performing as a fireman and learning more about steam technology.
Stephenson attended night school so he could learn to read and study the writings of James Watt and Richard Trevithick. Later he assisted his own son, Robert Stephenson, with homework in order to broaden his own education. Studying and reading evidently helped him, for soon after 1812 George had built thirty-nine stationary steam engines and had begun replacing horse-drawn coal sleds with cars on wooden rails pulled by stationary engines.
Stephenson was also trying to design a traveling steam engine that could carry itself, and cargo, over land. Stephenson's employers commissioned him to build a locomotive to carry coal out of their mines. His Blucher began operating on July 25, 1814. His design of flanged wheels, as well as his perfection of other innovations such as Trevithick's steam-blast technique (tested on the Wellington and My Lord) led to his selection as engineer of a railway between Stockton and Darlington, England. The steam-blast technique directed waste steam up the chimney of the boiler fire. This technique increased the draft of the fire and raised both temperature and pressure in the boiler. This innovation, based on Trevithick's early designs, was perhaps the single most important contribution to the history of the locomotive because it eventually led to faster running engines.
George persuaded Edward Pease (1767-1858) to help him establish a locomotive works at Newcastle where he could manufacture his designs. The twelve-mile (19 km) Stockton and Darlington Railway opened on September 27, 1825, with Stephenson's Locomotion pulling the first train. Though designed primarily as a freight line, the S&L also carried people, becoming the first railway to carry passengers. Thirty-eight cars were pulled at speeds averaging twelve to sixteen miles (19-26 km) per hour.
In 1827 Robert Stephenson joined his father's business. In 1829 their Rocket made its famous run at the Rainhill Trials, reaching a top speed of 36 miles (58 km) per hour. The next year George opened his Liverpool & Manchester Railway, the world's first railway built to provide passenger service. Opening day trains carried 600 persons.
The success of the L&M line triggered the rapid development of rail transportation in Europe and the United States. George retired from engineering in 1840, leaving his son to carry on the family business and make additional contributions to the steam industry. Still, he continued to play a major role in the development of rail transportation in England until his death near Chesterfield on August 12, 1848. Over the years, he has become recognized as the father of railway transportation.