George Stephenson (9 June 1781 – 12 August 1848) was an English civil engineer and mechanical engineer who built the first public railway line in the world to use steam locomotives, and he is renowned as being the "Father of Railways". The Victorians considered him a great example of diligent application and thirst for improvement, with self-help advocate Samuel Smiles particularly praising his achievements. His rail gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches (1,435 mm), sometimes called "Stephenson gauge", is the world's standard gauge.

George Stephenson was born in Wylam, Northumberland, 9.3 miles (15.0 km) west of Newcastle upon Tyne. He was the second child of Robert and Mabel, neither of whom could read or write. Robert was the fireman for Wylam Colliery pumping engine, earning a low wage, so that there was no money for schooling. At 17, Stephenson became an engineman at Water Row Pit, Newburn. George realised the value of education and paid to study at night school to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. In 1801 he began work at Black Callerton colliery as a ‘brakesman’, controlling the winding gear of the pit. In 1802 he married Frances (Fanny) Henderson and moved to Willington Quay, east of Newcastle. There he worked as a brakesman while they lived in one room of a cottage. George made shoes and mended clocks to supplement his income. In 1803 their son Robert was born, and in 1804 they moved to West Moor, near Killingworth while George worked as a brakesman at Killingworth pit. His wife gave birth to a daughter, who died after a few weeks, and in 1806 Fanny died of consumption (tuberculosis). George, then decided to find work in Scotland, and he left Robert with a local woman while he went to work in Montrose. After a few months he returned, probably because his father was blinded in a mining accident. George moved back into his cottage at West Moor and his unmarried sister Eleanor moved in to look after Robert. In 1811 the pumping engine at High Pit, Killingworth was not working properly and Stephenson offered to fix it. He did so with such success that he was soon promoted to enginewright for the neighbouring collieries at Killingworth, responsible for maintaining and repairing all of the colliery engines. He soon became an expert in steam-driven machinery.

In 1818, aware of the explosions often caused in mines by naked flames, Stephenson began to experiment with a safety lamp that would burn without causing an explosion. At the same time, Sir Humphry Davy, the eminent scientist was looking at the problem himself. Despite his lack of any scientific knowledge, Stephenson, by trial and error, devised a lamp in which the air entered via tiny holes. Stephenson demonstrated the lamp himself to two witnesses by taking it down Killingworth colliery and holding it directly in front of a fissure from which fire damp was issuing. This was a month before Davy presented his design to the Royal Society. The two designs differed in that, the Davy’s lamp was surrounded by a screen of gauze, whereas Stephenson’s lamp was contained in a glass cylinder. For his invention Davy was awarded £2,000, whilst Stephenson was accused of stealing the idea from Davy. A local committee of enquiry exonerated Stephenson, proved that he had been working separately and awarded him £1,000 but Davy and his supporters refused to accept this. They could not see how an uneducated man such as Stephenson could come up with the solution that he had. In 1833 a House of Commons committee found that Stephenson had equal claim to having invented the safety lamp. Davy went to his grave believing that Stephenson had stolen his idea. The Stephenson lamp was used exclusively in the North East, whereas the Davy lamp was used everywhere else. The experience with Davy gave Stephenson a life-long distrust of London-based, theoretical, scientific experts.

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