Robert Stephenson was born near Newcastle, England, on October 16, 1803. He was the only son of George Stephenson and was sent to the best schools and served a challenging apprenticeship with his father. He served as a mine supervisor in Colombia from 1824 to 1827. Upon his return he managed Robert Stephenson and Company, manufacturers of locomotives, which was founded in 1823 by his father with the financial support of Edward Pease (1767-1858).
The firm's first engine was the 1828 Lancashire Witch. The Witch had inclined cylinders that were connected directly to crank pins on the wheels. This innovation was intended to lessen the jumping motion created by vertical cylinders and to reduce the frequent derailments associated with vertical movement. The Witch was a direct predecessor to the infamous Rocket.
The Rocket was completed in 1829 and began the century of the steam locomotive in both England and the United States. In the late 1820s, railroads were still facing many challenges: financial supporters, for example, were skeptical that steam locomotives could ever completely replace horse-drawn transportation.
Robert was determined that the new Liverpool and Manchester Railroad would rely on steam power. The L&M announced a contest, with a 500-pound prize, to find a suitable engine for the line. The Rocket met the requirements and was announced the winner. As small as it was, the Rocket was able to perform consistently at an average speed of 14 miles (22.5 km) per hour on the 60-mile (96.5 km) Rainhill track and hit a peak speed of 36 miles (58 km) per hour with a cargo of more than two dozen passengers.
The Rocket incorporated many new technological advancements. First, like its forerunner, the Lancashire Witch, its piston was connected directly to its wheels by a crankshaft rather than by the previously used sets of rocking arms, chains, levers, and counterweights. Second, exhaust steam from the Rocket's boilers was successfully sent up the smoke stack to increase the fire's draft and temperature. This innovation became known as the steam-blast technique, which was introduced by Richard Trevithick around the turn of the century as part of his high-pressure steam applications.
The Rainhill Trials proved that rail transportation could indeed be powered by steam. When the 31-mile (50 km) long L&M opened in 1830, it became the first railway in the world to rely on steam locomotives and was known as the fastest and most regular line in operation. Robert and his father continued to build locomotives such as the Meteor, Comet, Dart, and Arrow. The firm's design reached near perfection with the 1830 Planet which utilized all of Stephenson's innovations to that date. The company soon shipped locomotives to France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the United States.
In 1833 Robert became engineer-in-chief of the new London-Birmingham Railway. He moved to London, England, to serve on Parliamentary committees and to solve problems related to the new railway. On June 24, 1838, the first of its trains traveled through tunnels, over subterranean quicksand, and over bridges.
Robert's work with the railway led him to another area of interest: bridge engineering. Although his first structure collapsed with a train on it, he soon developed a tubular construction which eventually led to the building of the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Straits with two 459-foot (140 meters) spans (the longest wrought-iron span prior to this was 31 feet [9.5 meters]). Similar structures were built at Conway, over the St. Lawrence at Montreal, Canada, at Newcastle and at Berwick, England, and in Egypt.
The Stephensons became known as the parents of steam-powered rail transportation and were honored throughout the world. When Robert died in London on October 12, 1859, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.