Wagons that are pulled along tracks have been used to transport material since the 16th century. But these trains were drawn by men or horses until the invention of the steam locomotive. A steam locomotive is a type of railway locomotive that produces its pulling power through a steam engine. These locomotives are fuelled by burning combustible material—usually coal, wood, or oil—to produce steam in a boiler. The steam moves reciprocating pistons which are mechanically connected to the locomotive’s main wheels (drivers).

Both fuel and water supplies are carried with the locomotive, either on the locomotive itself or in wagons (tenders) pulled behind. Steam locomotive start the basic railway system to realize its true potential. In 1804, Richard Trevithick built the world’s first working steam locomotive in South Wales.  It was not entirely not successful but it encouraged others to develop new designs. By 1829, the British engineer Robert Stephenson had built the “Rocket”. Considered to be the forerunner of the modern locomotive.


General Information

The “Rocket” was a self- sufficient unit, carrying coal to heat the boiler and water supply for generating steam. Steam passed from the boiler to force the piston back and forth. And this movement turned the driving wheels, propelling the train forwards. Used steam was then expelled in characteristic “chuffs”. Later steam locomotives, like “Ellerman Lines” and the “Mallard”, worked in a similar way, but on a much larger scale. The simple design and reliability of steam locomotives ensured that they changed very little in 120 years of use or before being replaced from the 1950s by more efficient diesel and electric power.

All locomotives are fitted with a variety of appliances. Some of these relate directly to the operation of the steam engine; others are for signalling and train control or other purposes. In the United States, the Federal Railroad Administration mandated the use of certain appliances over the years in response to safety concerns.


From the early 1900s, steam locomotives were gradually superseded by electric and diesel locomotives, with railways fully converting to electric and diesel power beginning in the late 1930s. The majority of steam locomotives were retired from regular service by the 1980s, although several continue to run on tourist and heritage lines.    

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