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Robert Stephenson FRS was the only son of George Stephenson, the locomotive builder and railway engineer. Many of the achievements credited at the time to his father were in fact the combined efforts of a brilliant father and son team.
Born in 1803 at Willington Quay, to the east of Newcastle Upon Tyne, after education at the Bruce Academy, Newcastle, and Edinburgh University, Robert's first project with his father was the Stockton and Darlington Railway. In 1823, at the age of 20, Robert set up a company in partnership with his father, to build railway locomotives. Robert Stephenson & Co. was situated in South Street, off Forth Street in Newcastle and the engineering works ( known widely as the â€˜Forth Street Works') were the first locomotive works in the world.
The first locomotives produced, for the Stockton and Darlington Railway, were called Locomotion, Hope, Diligence and Black Diamond. The Forth Street Works would continue to produce locomotives until the mid-twentieth century.
In 1824, a year before the Stockton and Darlington line opened, Robert continued his career development, by travelling to the Colombian gold mines to work as an engineer for three years. On his return in 1827, with George constructing the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, Robert focussed on the development of a locomotive to compete in the forthcoming Rainhill Trials, intended to choose a locomotive design to be used on the new railway.
The result was the Rocket, which had a multi-tubular boiler to obtain maximum steam pressure from the exhaust gases. Rocket was the sole competitor to successfully complete the trials.
The Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830 with a procession of eight trains setting out from Liverpool. George led the parade driving the Northumbrian, Robert drove the Phoenix and Joseph Locke drove the Rocket. Following its success, the company built locomotives for other newly-established railways, including the Leicester and Swannington Railway. It became necessary to extend the Forth Street Works to accommodate the increased work.
With growing competition from other emerging locomotive producers, Robert designed â€˜Planet' in 1830, a much more advanced design than Rocket, with the cylinders located inside the wheels creating greater power than earlier designs. Planet was used on the Camden and Amboy Railway in the USA.
Robert was appointed Chief Engineer for the London and Birmingham Railway in 1833 - this was the first main-line railway to enter London, and the initial section of the West Coast Main Line. Amongst many difficult civil engineering challenges, most notably Kilsby Tunnel, the line was completed in 1838. The tunnel under Primrose Hill was excavated by a progression of sunk shafts. To allow trains to climb the gradient from Euston Station to Chalk Farm, he devised a system of haulage chains pulled by a steam engine near The Roundhouse. The London and Birmingham Railway was completed at the then enormous cost of Â£5.5 million, compared with the cost of Â£900,000 for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
Among the many bridges he constructed to carry emerging railway was the early cast iron Gaunless bridge on the Stockton and Darlington line; and the High Level Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne and the Royal Border Bridge over the Tweed for the London to Edinburgh line; same line. His work with William Fairburn on the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Strait, completed in 1850, produced a novel design of wrought-iron box-section tubes to carry railway line inside them and the Conwy Railway Bridge was built in 1848 using a similar design. The box-section design was so successful that he produced similar designs for Egypt, and the 6,588 feet long Victoria Bridge over the St Lawrence River at Montreal in Canada.
One of Stephenson's rare failures was the Dee bridge, which collapsed under a train, killing five people. The cause was the fracture of over-long cast iron girders and a significant number of similar bridges designed by other engineers had to be demolished and rebuilt to safer designs.
He served as Conservative Member of Parliament for Whitby from 1847 until his death. He was a commissioner of the London Metropolitan Commission of Sewers from 1848. He was President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, for two years from 1855. His great peronal friends were Joseph Locke and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Buried in Westminster Abbey, next to Thomas Telford, Queen Victoria gave special permission for the cortege to pass through Hyde Park. In his eulogy, he was called â€˜the greatest engineer of the present century'.