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The Salamanca – The story of the world’s first commercially successful steam locomotive…

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

An hours wait at Auto Windscreens in Middleton, Leeds was spent exploring the local area on foot and finally getting to visit The Middleton Railway. Whilst not being a particular railway enthusiastic I was still intrigued by the story of a particular Yorkshire first…

The first steam locomotive was developed in 1804 by Richard Trevithick – his experiments were successful but it was 8 more years before it reached fruition with the building of The Salamanca.

The catalyst for the development was the Napoleonic Wars. The coal mine at Middleton had previously used horses to haul coal along wooden rails back to Leeds City Centre. But the demand for fodder for horses used in the Napoleonic wars meant there was a shortage of food for the horses.

The mine was owned by Charles John Brandling whose business was starting to boom with early industrialisation, particularly in the textile industry starting to increase demand for coal. The Manager of the Middleton Coal Mine was John Blenkinsop who knew he had to come up with an alternative and remembered the Trevithick experiments from 8 years earlier and thought this could be the solution to replace horse power.

There had always been questions about the limitations of Trevithick’s locomotive only being able to pull about four times its weight - this was seen as not really being significant enough

to replace the horse pulled carts already being used. The main reason for this lack of performance was down to most locomotives at the time not having enough adhesion to the track to pull heavy loads.

Middleton Coal Mine Manager, Blenkinsop had the vision that this capacity could be increased using what was called “a rack & pinion propulsion system”, something he had cleverly designed and patented in advance. In a nutshell his system worked by having a cog wheel attached to the outside of the locomotive and this would sit in a toothed rail which ran along the edge of the track giving the locomotive extra purchase and propulsion.

Blenkinsop then engaged Matthew Murray, Leeds foremost engineer at the time. Murray had worked as engineer in the textile industry, helping to mechanise processes such as spinning, carding and weaving. He had set up his own engineering company Fenton, Murray & Wood – which was where the Round Foundry Media Centre and Welcome to Yorkshire’s head office is in Holbeck, Leeds today.

Using Trevithick’s original designs he was tasked with designing and building a locomotive which could improve on efficiency and incorporate Blenkinsop’s patent. His solution was a 2 cylinder engine which was the first of its type.

Matthew Murray built a steam locomotive called The Salamanca. It was named after one the Battles during the Napoleonic War which had occurred earlier in 1812 where the Duke of Wellington had been victorious. The Salamanca was delivered to Middleton Coal Mine in 1812 and the wooden rails were replaced with metal track and toothed rail. It was an immediate success, being able to pull over 20 times its own weight.

"Some time ago a steam-engine was mounted upon wheels at Leeds, and made to move along a rail road by means of a rack wheel, dragging after it a number of waggons loaded with coals."  - Annals of Philosophy, September 1814

Improvements in locomotive design meant the system was obsolete by the late 1830’s as locomotives just operating by adhesion to track became commonplace and prominent engineer George Stephenson started to lead the way with production.

The Salamanca was revolutionary at the time but seems to have been pushed to the back of the history books. It was not the first locomotive – and pioneering locomotives such as Stephenson’s Rocket which came later are better known. But as the world’s first working commercial railway locomotive – it can genuinely take its place as a World first.


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