Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 655:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 655.

Today, inventiveness reaches beyond the invention. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The English gave us the steam railway. They ran a passenger line in London in 1808. After that, railway systems took off in England.

We put our energies into the steamboat during those years. We didn't run a commercial railway until 1827. And we began by using English locomotives.

A member of the Philadelphia Museum worried about that state of affairs. He went to Matthias Baldwin, a young printer. Baldwin had worked at wood engraving and book-making. He'd already revolutionized the printing of calico. He'd also invented his own steam engine to power his shop.

So, in 1830, Baldwin designed and built a little four passenger demonstration railway for the museum. Right away, a rail- way firm in Philadelphia hired him to build a full scale locomotive.

That's how Baldwin gave us one of our first commercial locomotives in 1832. He named it Old Ironsides, after the famous ship. And with that he launched a new career.

He finished his second locomotive in 1834. This time he invented means for raising steam pressure from 60 pounds per square inch to 120. That meant far better performance.

In no time he outperformed the English. By the time he died in 1866, he'd made 1500 steam locomotives. He'd made one improvement after another.

Yet Baldwin's story doesn't read like other 19th century industrialists. While he was still young, he fought to change the Pennsylvania suffrage law. The vote was limited to "free male white citizens." Baldwin stood in a brave minority who tried to include free Black men.

Years later, as Civil War clouds gathered, he'd become so staunch an abolitionist that the South boycotted his locomotives. He had, after all, begun with books and printing -- primary tools of freedom. They'd left their stamp on him.

Late in life, Baldwin built churches. He founded science institutes. He fostered art. He raised money to care for wounded veterans. This maker of engines knew invention is an act of love -- love of people, of beauty, of knowledge, and of freedom.

When he began, America only had 250 miles of railway. We were a cultural backwater. Baldwin knew that books, art, the railway, and invention itself, all set us free. He knew that inventors invent far more than machinery. Baldwin knew that inventors also give shape and form -- to the world they live in.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Kelly, R., Matthias W. Baldwin (1795-1866): Locomotive Pioneer!. New York: The Newcomen Society of England, American Branch, 1946.

See also entries under Matthias Baldwin and Railways in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

For some later 19th century Baldwin locomotives, see:


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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