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The Locomotive That Walked: William Brunton’s Steam Horse

Railway engineering has come a long way from Richard Trevithick’s first steam locomotive to today’s high speed Maglev trains. Throughout this long history spanning more than two hundred years, engineers have come up with all sorts of ideas. Some of these were groundbreaking. Others were implausible and wacky. William Brunton’s Mechanical Traveller or Steam Horse falls into the second category.

William Brunton was born in 1777 at Lochwinnoch, in Scotland. His father had a watch and clock making shop where he had his first training as a mechanic. At the age of 13, he started work as a fitter at New Lanark Cotton Mills on the River Clyde, but six years later, he migrated south and found employment under the steam pioneer James Watt at the Boulton & Watt Soho Foundry in Birmingham. By 1802 he had risen to superintendent of the engine department. In 1808, Brunton joined the Butterley Works of Benjamin Outram and William Jessop in Derbyshire to manage its expanding engine factory. He made acquaintances with many distinguished engineers of the time, such as John Rennie and Thomas Telford.

In 1813, while at Butterley, Brunton designed a very ingenious walking locomotive called Mechanical Traveller or Steam Horse for use on the company's mining conveyor at Crich. The locomotive had four wheels that ran on rails, and was driven by a pair of mechanical legs that gripped the rails at the rear of the engine to push it forward the same way a man would push a cart uphill. Although a locomotive with two walking legs looked ridiculous, the idea had merit. Brunton thought that iron wheels running on iron rails wouldn't generate enough traction needed to haul heavy loads at the limestone quarry at Crich, where the gradient was 1 in 50. The legs were added to overcome this. The prototype worked well for two years at Butterley, pulling limestone blocks at three miles an hour. Burton built a second and larger Steam Horse for the Newbottle colliery, where it worked against a gradient of 1 in 36 all through the winter of 1814.

Brunton's machine, however, never got beyond the experimental state. In 1815, during a demonstration in Philadelphia, County Durham, England, the boiler blew up, killing and wounding several of the bystanders. This was the first recorded boiler explosion in history and the first railway accident causing major loss of life. The horrific accident put a pall on the enthusiasm for the Steam Horse, and Brunton moved on to concentrate on other engineering ideas.

Brunton’s name is not well known, but he did make many important contribution to engineering. Brunton played a large part in the adoption of steam in navigation. He made some of the first engines used on the Humber and the Trent, and some of the earliest on the Mersey, including those for the vessel which first plied on the Liverpool ferries in 1814. He fitted out the Sir Francis Drake at Plymouth in 1824, the first steamer that ever took a man-of-war in tow. In the course of his career, Brunton took out nine patents in all. His calciner was in widespread use in the Cornish tin mining industry and in the silver mines of Mexico. His fan regulator was also one of his most valuable invention.

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