August 28, 1830: Tom Thumb races a horse-drawn carriage. And lost. Tom Thumb was the first American-built steam locomotive used on a common-carrier railroad. The steam train was designed and built by Peter Cooper. His hope was to convince the owners of the newly formed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) to use steam engines for their enterprise. When first built, railroads were simply tracks on roads which made it easier for horses to pull wagons and carriages if their wheels were modified to run on the tracks. Steam locomotives were first built in England and the early steam engines used in America had to be imported from there. Cooper hoped to offer the new railroad American built engines.
His design was a four wheeled locomotive with a vertical boiler which was mounted on cylinders which drove the wheels on their axels. There were many improvisations included in the original model. Boiler tubes were made from rifle barrels and a blower was placed in the stack which was driven by a belt from the powered axel. The fuel of choice was anthracite coal, abundant in the region. Cooper’s motivation was not entirely due to his love of the railroads. He was a land speculator and had made a sizable real estate investment in what is today the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore. He hoped that a successful rail system would increase the value of the real estate.
The engine was built in the machine shop owned by George Johnson and had James Millholland, then 18 years old, apprenticed there. Millholland would later become a prominent locomotive designer. The B&O railroad owned tracks between Baltimore and Ellicott Mills. There were two tracks side by side. On this day, a horse-drawn carriage loaded with passengers was sitting next to Tom Thumb. The driver of the carriage challenged the train to race and the train accepted the challenge. Tom Thumb easily pulled away from the carriage. But then disaster struck and the belt slipped off the blower pulley. Without the blower, the boiler did not draw properly and the train lost power allowing the horse to pass it and win the race.
But it was not a total victory for the carriage. It was evident that the steam engine provided better locomotive power and the steam engine’s day was at hand. Tom Thumb was not ever meant for revenue service, it was simply a prototype. It was not preserved. But Cooper and other early innovators left enough information and descriptive dimensions for later aficionados to be able to reverse engineer another Tom Thumb. By 1892, a wooden model was built by Major Joseph Pangborn who also made models of other early locomotives. In 1927, B&O had a centennial celebration exhibition near Baltimore and included a replica of Tom Thumb in their exhibition but based it on Pangborn’s model which was not entirely accurate. The engine remains on display at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum.
We must beware of needless innovations, especially when guided by logic. – Winston Churchill
There is no monster more destructive than the inventive mind that has outstripped philosophy. – Ellen Glasgow
An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents…. Its opponents gradually die out and the growing generation is familiar with the idea from the beginning. – Max Planck
A society made up of individuals who were all capable of original thought would probably be unendurable. – Henry Louis Mencken
Also on this day: First Tornado Photograph – In 1884, the first tornado photograph was made.
Sci Am – In 1845, Scientific American began publication.
Odds and Evens – In 888, the last date written in all even numbers for over a thousand years.
Enceladus – In 1789, William Herschel found Enceladus in the night sky.
Stunningly Beautiful – In 1859, a giant geomagnetic storm lit up the skies.