• Graham Watkins

Trevithick has an idea and a bet is made.

Researching 'The Iron Masters' I came across a strange bet made between the Iron Masters regarding Trevithick's proposal to build a machine he called a locomotive. It was a story that was too good not to include in the novel. Although historically correct, the names have been changed and there is no record to say if the bet was ever honoured.


Shortly after Nelson’s visit to Merthyr, Isaac Thomas called a meeting, to make a public announcement. The civic hall was filled to capacity when Nye and Benjamin arrived. They stood at the back of the hall. Isaac Thomas was on a platform at the front of the hall with a stocky man Nye didn’t recognise. Isaac called for quiet.

‘Gentlemen, thank you for coming this evening. As you know the transportation of goods from Merthyr is controlled by the owners of the canal and the canal is run for the benefit of one foundry, owned by Mr. Vaughn. He treats it as if it were his personal property.’

There were cries of ‘shame’ from the audience.

‘It’s a monopoly that’s inequitable and morally wrong and I‘m going to break it,’ said Isaac, ‘I am going to build a tramway from Merthyr to Cardiff.’

‘It won’t work,’ whispered Nye to his companion.


‘How are you going to haul the trucks? It’s too far for horses.’ asked a man.

‘We aren’t going to use horses. We’re going to use steam engines. Mr. Trevithick will explain,’ said Isaac and invited the man sharing the platform with him to continue.

‘Good evening, my name’s Richard Trevithick. I’m a mine engineer from Cornwall and I build steam engines to pump water from the mines. Mr. Thomas has asked me to look at how to use steam to power the tramway. My initial idea was to put a series of winding engines along the tramway and use cables to drag the trucks along but with nearly thirty miles of track the number and cost of the engines is impractical so I had to find another way. My solution is a radical one, something that’s never been done before. I propose to make the steam engine smaller, put it on wheels and use steam power to propel it along the track together with the trucks. I shall call the moving engine a locomotive,’ said Trevithick.

‘I’ll wager it won’t work,’ shouted Nye from the audience.

‘What are you doing?’ whispered Benjamin.

‘A steam engine must weigh twenty or thirty tons. The track isn’t strong enough to support so much weight and no engine in the world is powerful enough to move such a heavy object,’ whispered Nye.

‘Vaughn, have you the stomach to put real money on the wager?’ called Isaac.

‘How much of the tramway is built?’ shouted Nye.

‘We’re as far as Abercynon, nearly ten miles,’ replied Isaac.

‘I offer a bet of one hundred guineas that Mr. Trevithick’s engine cannot haul ten tons of iron from Merthyr to Abercynon and return with the empty carriages,’ said Nye.

‘A hundred guineas is a paltry sum. I will wager five hundred guineas that it will,’ replied Isaac.

‘Five hundred guineas? I accept. When will the challenge be tested?’ said Nye.

‘I’m afraid, Gentlemen, you will have a wait. The locomotive hasn’t been built yet,’ said Trevithick.

‘This is madness, Nye. Trevithick has a reputation. He could well succeed,’ said Benjamin.

‘I’m confident he won’t. Anyway the bet is made,’ replied Nye.



On the 21st February 1804 a large crowd gathered to watch Richard Trevithick’s locomotive emerge from its shed at Thomas’ foundry. The engine belched smoke as it trundled across the points and stopped. Trevithick signalled from his position behind the engine and the points were changed. The Cornishman cracked open the steam valve, there was a loud hiss and the engine slowly backed along the track towards five waiting trucks....