IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A STORY ABOUT A MAN WHO CAME OUT OF NOWHERE TO CONQUER THE WORLD, HERE’S ONE: On this day in 1781, civil and mechanical engineer George Stephenson was born to illiterate parents in the north of England. Later known as the “Father of Railways,” Stephenson did not learn to read until he was 18 years old. And yet he went on to become a titan of the Industrial Revolution.

By 1810, Stephenson’s remarkable talent for designing engines had already been recognized by the wealthy coal-owning families of the Northeast (known as the Grand Allies). They put him in charge of all their machinery. But it took longer for recognition to come from the rest of Britain. This little story should illustrate:

On May 25, 1812, a ghastly mining explosion cost the lives of 92 men and boys. The problem was the oil lamp that the miners were using; its open flame could ignite the inflammable gases that collected in the mine. A reward was therefore offered for the first workable safety lamp.

The first attempt (offered by a Dr. Clany) was too heavy to be of use. So with great fanfare, mine owners called upon Britain’s leading scientist—Humphry Davy—to help. Davy enthusiastically agreed. “Do not despair, I think we can do something for you in a very short time,” he wrote to a mining company officer.

But unbeknownst to Davy, Stephenson (then employed by Grand Allies) was already working on the problem. Interestingly, the two men came up with very similar ideas, which led to some nasty accusations of copying.

In The Birth of the Modern (BTW a wonderful book), Paul Johnson told the story this way:

The likelihood is that both men discovered the principle independently. The lamps were the same, except that Stephenson used a perforated plate instead of Davy’s wire gauze. Stephenson quickly adopted the Davy gauze as superior, but kept to his glass chimney, which Davy’s lamp had scrapped. As a result, the Stephenson, or “Geordie Lamp,” was safer. There is no record of one going wrong. On 18 January 1825, on the other hand, a Davy lamp caused an explosion which cost the lives of 24 men and boys. By then, however, Davy had been universally credited with ending the problem. The state awarded him 2,000 pounds. The Tyne & Wear colliery owners presented him with a massive set of plate at the Queen’s Head, Newcastle, on 13 September 1817, “Jack” Lambton in the chair. The Royal Society awarded him the Rumford Medal. The Regent made him a baronet. Alexander I, anxious to get in on any “progressive” act, sent him a huge silver vase, with the gold of fire weeping over his extinguished torch. All Stephenson got was a purse of 100 guineas. … Stephenson’s backer, the Grand Alliance, was run by many grandees, and they were so annoyed by the honors paid to Davy that, two weeks after the Queen’s Head dinner, they gave Stephenson an even bigger one, at the Newcastle Assembly Rooms, presenting him with a silver tankard and £1,000 raised by public subscription. … But it was no use. Davy remained the inventor of the safety lamp in the public’s mind. He had won the publicity battle, and that, increasingly, was what mattered in the world.

But no matter. Stephenson’s immense talent went on to bigger and better things. He (and eventually his engineer son/partner, Robert Stephenson) built locomotives and railways across Britain. That includes the first public railway with steam locomotives–the Stockton and Darlington.  He died a great man in the eyes of his countrymen. Hail the future!