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John Bull Locomotive

It may look pretty modest, but the John Bull locomotive is the world's oldest, still operable self-propelled vehicle. Much more than that, it is in the ancestral line of piston-driven wheeled vehicles that have been transforming our planet since the early 1800s. Furthermore, since the John Bull was steam powered, it was part of the steam revolution that thrust humankind into the industrial age.

Late in August 1831, after a six-week voyage from Liverpool, England, the Allegheny docked at a Philadelphia wharf. Lashed aboard were the parts for "one locomotive steam engine" that had been purchased by New Jersey entrepreneur and engineer Robert Stevens. Stevens was building a commercial railroad, one of the first in the United States. He had hired Isaac Dripps, a native of Belfast in the north of Ireland, as a skilled mechanic.

A sloop carried the parts upriver to Bordentown, NJ. There, on September 4, young Isaac and his assistants received the crates. None of the men had ever seen a locomotive before, and there were no instructions for its assembly. But Dripps had had some experience with steamboats. Eleven days later, Dripps and his crew had put the engine together on a short length of track. A fire was lit, and steam raised. To everyone's relief, the machine moved, although it would need considerable fine-tuning before it worked properly. In November, Stevens held a party to display the engine to politicians and investors whose support he needed to complete his railroad. Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew, Napoleon-Lucien-Charles Murat, attended the festivities, and his wife became the first woman in America to ride aboard a steam-pulled train.

After the party, Stevens put his engine in a shed for nearly two years while he worked on his railroad, laying rails between Camden and South Amboy, NJ (hence the name Camden and Amboy Railroad). As sections were completed, operations began with horse cars. Travelers then took ferries at either end to reach the cities of New York or Philadelphia. The Camden and Amboy became one of the most successful early railroads in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the John Bull that greets visitors to the Smithsonian's NMAH today looks quite different than it did when first completed. Back in 1831, Stevens had traveled to the Newcastle, England, factory of Robert Stephenson & Co. to negotiate the engine's specifications. The two Roberts, builder and client, settled on a design for the locomotive based on Stephenson's Samson model, which had four equal-sized wheels that were powered by two steam cylinders. Numerous other details reflected British practice of the day.

In the spring of 1833, the John Bull, named some time later for England's counterpart to Uncle Sam, along with several other engines that Stevens had built, helped finish construction of the Camden and Amboy Railroad. Soon thereafter, the engine got its famous cowcatcher, whose real function was not to deflect livestock. A major alteration to the engine's basic design, the cowcatcher included a new pair of wheels up front to better keep the locomotive on the track.

Because investment capital at the time was scarce and the distance between major cities often was long, American track was built on the cheap. Budgets for track building never permitted the high-quality track construction and maintenance typical on 19th-century British lines. In America's frontier environment, railroads might not pay unless the design of the locomotives could be modified and improved to navigate uneven track. Stevens and Dripps thus combined their ideas with those of American engineer John Jervis. The extra small-size wheels--joined by beams to the first pair of larger wheels--were rigged into the engine's suspension. The new front axle acted to steer the locomotive over rough spots without derailing. The cowcatcher, added in front of the new wheels, was more or less an afterthought.

For 35 years, the faithful patriarch locomotive served the country in one capacity or another, retiring in 1866 at the end of the Civil War. It appeared thereafter at several fairs, most notably the 1876 United States Centennial Exposition, in Philadelphia. In 1885, the Smithsonian acquired both the locomotive and the Institution's first curator of engineering, J. Elfreth Watkins, from the Pennsylvania Railroad, which had taken over the Camden and Amboy.

John Bull left its home at the Smithsonian a couple of times to run before an admiring public--in 1893, at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and in 1927, at Baltimore's Fair of the Iron Horse. In the 1970s, NMAH curator John White posed a question: Could John Bull run one last time on the 150th anniversary of its first steaming in America? On September 15, 1981, after considerable analysis, a careful examination by a boiler-inspection firm, and a 1980 trial run on a branch-line track in Virginia, John Bull displayed its magic before a rapt audience. Belching fire and smoke under the care of White and colleagues John Stine and Bill Withuhn, the locomotive ran on the old Georgetown Branch rails beside the C&O Canal in Washington, DC.

To the museum staff, John Bull had always appeared a Rube Goldberg-like contraption, an ungainly concatenation of many years' modifications. Surprisingly, however, the little engine proved agile, easy to fire and to operate, even peppy, its pilot wheels providing an uncannily steady ride. All the engines contemporary to John Bull had gone to the boneyard years earlier. The reason for this locomotive's longevity became clear: the John Bull had escaped that fate because it was so useful.

 


American Railroad Expansion (1870-1950)

It is hard, today, to understand the importance of the railroad in the everyday lives of Americans who came of age between 1870 and 1950. By 1870, a year after the driving of the golden spike that marked the completion of the nation's first transcontinental railroad, railroads had blanketed the East and Midwest and were extending multiple lines westward. By 1950, railroads were in rapid decline, as a growing network of highways carried more and more automobiles and trucks. But between those years, railroads carried nearly everything everywhere--up to 90 percent of all the travelers and cargoes that moved intercity.

Americans depended on the railroad for their long-distance travel, for everyday commuting from suburbs, for daily mail and express packages, and for most of the food and goods stocked on store shelves. Railroads moved the raw materials, the foodstuffs, and the manufactured products of a continental economy. Railroads employed up to two million people and affected the jobs of millions more in agriculture, manufacturing, or distribution. Because of their dependence on railroads, Americans had a love-hate relationship with them. Some people stood in awe; other citizens despised the railroads for their often monopolistic ways.

Passengers and cargoes reached peak levels in the 1920s, but already, autos and trucks were competing in the transportation marketplace. Because of past abuses, railroads had become heavily regulated, but these factors were not major threats to the railroads' primacy. Some 60,000 steam locomotives of all types and sizes hauled long-distance and local freight trains, switched railroad yards in every city and town, handled the two- and three-car passenger trains up the branch lines, and--like the National Museum of American History's huge 1401--sped the heaviest passenger "limited."

 

Related Images

A complete side view of the John Bull locomotive, its tender, and passenger car during its 150th anniversary run
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A complete side view of the John Bull locomotive, its tender, and passenger car during its 150th anniversary run
Period depiction of the John Bull locomotive, about 1865
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Period depiction of the John Bull locomotive, about 1865
In this early morning scene, National Museum of American History staff prepare the engine for its historic run.
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In this early morning scene, National Museum of American History staff prepare the engine for its historic run.
Model of the John Bull locomotive as built in 1831, before addition of the
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Model of the John Bull locomotive as built in 1831, before addition of the "pilot" axle and cowcatcher.


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