Making the Industrial Revolution Possible

George Stephenson was born in England in 1781 to parents who could not read or write.  There was no money to send George to school and he started working at a young age.  Realizing that he needed an education, George paid for night school.  He became literate when he was 18.

George began working for the railroad at age 20 and married a year later.  He experienced tragedy early in his life.  His daughter died three weeks after birth and his wife died just four years into their marriage.  His father was blinded in an accident not too long after his wife’s death.

When the pumping engine at a local mine wouldn’t work, George repaired it.  This started him on a remarkable career that no one would have expected.

Explosions in mines were a real hazard and George developed a safety lamp that would provide light without causing risks to miners.  Unknown to George, a renowned scientist had also developed a light that worked on a different principle.  George was accused of stealing the scientist’s idea.  The claim was that someone with so little education could not possibly have invented such a lamp.  But George was supported by those who knew him.  The dispute ultimately went to the House of Commons who decided that George had equal claim to the rights from the lamp.

After developing the safety lamp, George then developed locomotives.  This also led to work on rail lines.  George and his son created a company to manufacture locomotives.  A decision had to be made for the distance between the locomotive wheels.  George chose 4 ft 8.5 in.  Ultimately, this became the common gauge for virtually all of the railroads in the world.  George also designed the first bridge to cross over railroad tracks.

As railroads fueled the industrial revolution, George and his son became the people to go to for advice on railroad construction.  In spite of his minimal education, George became the first president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.  George has been selected as one of the 100 Greatest Britons by the BBC.  He passed away at the age of 67.

It’s remarkable that in a class-focused society, such as England at the time, a man with such a limited education could make such contributions.  But hidden heroes are rarely known for their credentials or their pedigrees.  Their creativity, their drive, and their spirit is what makes them hidden heroes.  But in George’s case, he is a role model for the way he built a life from having nothing to start.

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“I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people.” – Maya Angelou

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