The Engineering and History of Rocket: A Survey Report

Article excerpt

M. R. Bailey and J. P. Glithero, The Engineering and History of Rocket: a survey report, Science Museum, London, and National Railway Museum, York (2000), 186 pp., L29.95.

This book is a detailed record of the dismantling (and reassembly!) of probably the most famous machine in the world, Robert Stephenson's Rocket, winner of the 1829 Rainhill trials, prototype for the initial locomotive stock of the world's first main-line railway. The aims of this dismantling included discovering more about how the locomotive was made in the first place, how it had been altered in service, how it had been repaired after a number of accidents and what changes had been made since it entered the Patent Office Museum in 1862 - where early curators seem to have added or discarded bits as they fancied, leaving only patchy records of what they had done.

Alongside the practical work of dismantling, measuring, drawing and photographing components which had not seen daylight for a very long time indeed, a thorough historical survey was also carried out which brought together all the available evidence gathered in past initiatives involving the locomotive, including retrospective drawings made before it entered the museum and the work which went into 'designing' the numerous replicas which have been built over the years. The authors identify nine, which probably makes it the most replicated machine in history.

The first two chapters relate to Rocket's place in locomotive history and the history of the locomotive itself. To this reviewer it is compelling stuff, though the interpretation of the relative contributions of George and Robert Stephenson seems slightly fudged. On the evidence provided, the authors appear to support the new orthodoxy that Robert did the work while George found the money and marketed the product (nothing wrong with that - it worked well enough for Boulton and Watt, or Rolls and Royce) but they never quite say so. The unworthy thought occurs that the Science Museum has exhibited something of a penchant for marketing `George Stephenson's Rocket' and that the authors may have felt constrained.

In some ways the real breakthrough which Rocket represented was the realisation that track strength limitations made it necessary to think in terms of power rather than drawbar pull - a smaller, lighter locomotive and train travelling at higher speed than a lumbering brute moving at horse speed with a huge load. …