The History of Locomotives

Posted by The Home School in the Woods Team on

Whether it’s playing with an electric train set or watching Thomas the Tank Engine on repeat, locomotives have sparked excitement in children of all ages for over a century.


Maybe it’s the motion or speed of trains that makes them so fascinating, or perhaps it’s their impressive design and strength. Nevertheless, trains are an invention that marked a new age and way of life. 


Teaching our children about the history of trains is an important topic to cover since they’ve had such a profound impact on our economy. 


Take a ride with us as we unravel the amazing history of trains and how you can combine history and your child’s fascination with trains!


What Are Locomotives?

Let’s first start by identifying the difference between locomotives and trains. 


The word locomotive comes from the Latin word loco, meaning place, and motive from the Latin motivus, meaning something that causes motion. 


With that said, a locomotive is “a powered rail vehicle used for pulling trains.” In other words, a locomotive is the engine of the train – and the train is a series of interconnected wagons or coaches hauled by the locomotive. 


Now that you know the difference, let’s jump into some locomotive/train history! 


When Were Trains Invented?

Trains are known for taking off during the Industrial Revolution. However, the design for the first train was in the works for quite some time before that. Since the invention of the steam engine in 1698, man began inventing many designs that would change society’s relationship with transportation and work. 


Thomas Newcomen and his assistant John Cally were the first to create an atmospheric engine that used steam to activate pumps. This served useful in pumping water out of coal mines and other flooded areas. Although their invention wasn’t the most efficient, it did spark others to create inventions like the first locomotive. 


By the late 18th century, Scottish inventor James Watt would use a similar design to become the father of the first working steam engine, as well as other devices like the pressure gauge, throttle valves, and steam regulators. 


His inventions would prove beneficial for society. However, because he patented the design, other inventors couldn’t create a locomotive-powered steam engine until his patent expired in the 1800s. 


Who Invented the First Locomotive?

At this point, many inventors jumped at the opportunity to create a transportation device using Watt’s design. They hoped to replace horses with something faster and more robust. 


Richard Trevithick was the first to do this with his steam-powered locomotive on rails. He showed off his invention to a group of people who didn’t believe steam could be powerful enough to carry heavy objects. 


His steam locomotive pulled 10 tons of iron, five wagons, and 70 men for 10 miles! Unfortunately, the weight proved to be too heavy for the track and many found it wasn’t worth investing in. 


By 1814, George Stephenson and his son would build the first functional steam locomotive, called “The Rocket.” This utilized a multi-tube boiler which traveled at an average speed of 13 miles per hour (mph) with a heavy load, and 29 mph without! Their invention used many new elements that would continue to improve steam engine trains to come. 


The Evolution of Trains

Locomotives continued to evolve significantly over the years, turning this invention into a fast, reliable, and relatively cheap way to transport goods and people. 


Railroads showed up in America around the 1830s with Peter Cooper’s Tom Thumb locomotive, which would travel from Baltimore to Ohio. Between 1832 and 1837, over 1,200 miles of railroad tracks were placed in the United States, developing better communication between states. 


With the Transcontinental Railroad construction in the 1860s, the West and the East became all the more interconnected. The railroad also proved itself useful during the Civil War, as the North and South could quickly move both soldiers and equipment across the country. 


As trains became a well-sought-after way to travel, inventors continued to improve on its design – going from steam engines to diesel and electric. Other features like the famous “cow catcher” were introduced as railroad tracks weren’t fenced in and invited animals to derail the locomotive if hit. 


The History of Trains for Kids

It’s safe to say that the invention of the train comes close to the invention of the phone or the computer. Why? Because its effect significantly transformed the way we function as a society. 


The invention of the train is by far one of the greatest inventions of the Industrial Revolution – strengthening our economy, creating jobs, and increasing demand for many industries such as coal and metal. 


Because of the train, America not only became more connected than ever before, but also gained access to essential goods that otherwise wouldn’t be available. 


Combining Kids’ Train Fascination With Facts

It’s amazing to watch our kids grow a love and passion for things – even if it’s only for a short season. As homeschool parents, these seasons of fascination present the perfect opportunity to include them in our children’s schooling. 


One of these fascinations may be trains, which can make learning about the Industrial Revolution all the more exciting and memorable! If you’re looking to include train facts and history into your homeschool lessons, we’ve got a few options for you.


Our Industrial Revolution Through the Great Depression study covers locomotives and trains, particularly the Transcontinental Railroad. This study covers several periods, from the 1860s through 1939. Its goal is to help children understand how America reached the modern age.


We also include trains in our timeline library so that children can visualize where trains showed up in America, how they transformed over the years, and how they opened the door for many new and exciting opportunities.


Even if your kids don’t have a passion for trains, learning about them could spark one. After all, there’s nothing more heartwarming than watching someone find a new interest because of what others have taught them. 


So, we encourage you to go out and inspire your children to learn more about the history behind the things that delight them. Because chances are they’ll never forget the people, dates, and places surrounding it! 


Looking for other exciting historical topics your child might enjoy? Read more blog posts from our Words from the Woods Blog.


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