When James Watt first heard about the new tubular boiler he publicly claimed that Trevithick should be hanged for creating something so lethal. And it was lethal – mainly because the quality of metal available at the time, and the rivets used to bolt the plates together, were simply not strong enough to withstand the enormous pressures. Trevithick also invented a safety valve for the boiler – after he left one of his engines on a cart outside an inn where he remained drinking for several hours, and it blew up.
High pressure steam cut coal consumption by four fifths, which was a huge financial saving. So after the new Cornish high-pressure steam boiler proved to be successful, Boulton & Watt registered patents which, for over 40 years, made further development by any other engineers impossible. Any attempts to work round these provoked immediate threats of litigation.
Richard Trevithick’s fertile mind meant he invariably worked on several inventions at the same time. This made him hard to pin down to a particular project. He had a quick temper, fell out with his patrons, was invariably short of money, and hopeless at business.
He married Jane Harvey whose father had established an iron foundry and engineering works in Hayle. All too aware of Richard Trevithick’s poor money management, and anxious that his sister did not suffer, Jane’s brother installed her as manager of his hotel, The White Hart, which she ran while raising six children. This income sustained the family during the sixteen years that Trevithick was in South America. He walked a thousand miles from one side of the continent to the other, maintaining engines and boilers built in Cornwall and sent out to the mines in Chile, Peru and Mexico.
Despite his many remarkable inventions Richard died a pauper. But at the ‘Trevithick Day’ celebrations in Camborne, a replica of his ‘Puffing Devil,’ the world’s first successful self-propelled vehicle, reminded the crowds of the achievements of this remarkable Cornishman.