The youngest of six children, Trevithick was born in 1771, the son of a Cornish mine captain. Cornwall's most famous son and migrant, he did not have much aptitude for learning at school but acquired an extensive knowledge of engineering by wandering around the mines where his father worked. By the age of 19 he was employed as a consulting engineer, the beginning of a remarkable career during which he pioneered the use of high pressure steam and increased the efficiency of the engines used to pump water from the subterranean depths of Cornwall's tin and copper mines.
Trevithick was one of a handful of pioneers of the first industrial revolution. He is famed for his invention of the first successful self-powered road vehicle, an event immortalised in the Cornish folk song 'Goin up Camborne Hill'. But he also designed a steam railway engine, devised schemes for wreck salvage, land reclamation, mechanical refrigeration, agricultural machinery and for tunneling under the Thames. His fame spread beyond Cornwall and in 1813 he was contacted by Francisco Uville, a director of the Pasco Mining Company of Peru. This Swiss gentleman had noticed one of Trevithick's model engines in a London shop window that he purchased and took back to the Andes where it performed well at altitude. Uville and his partners saw that the severe water problems encountered at their Cerro de Pasco silver mines could be overcome using imported steam technology.
Armed with 30,000 pesos (around £600), Uville travelled to Cornwall to find and engage Trevithick who agreed to design several high pressure Cornish steam engines, Cornish boilers and necessary auxiliary equipment. Trevithick was admitted as a shareholder of the company and in 1814 a large consignment of machinery including the several Cornish boilers made by Holmans of Camborne and engines manufactured by Hazeldine of Bridgnorth Foundry Shropshire was en route to Cerro de Pasco high in the Peruvian Andes. With it went a trio of Cornish engineers: Trevithick's brother in law Henry Vivian, James Saunders a cousin and William Bull, his son's former tutor.
But by 1816 problems with assembling the machinery which had been cast in numerous sections had arisen, necessitating Trevithick's journey to Peru. Leaving his wife and family behind in Cornwall, his arrival witnessed initial success but was followed by disagreements with Uville and he left the mines in disgust, travelling throughout Peru disseminating Cornish mining techniques to native miners. His efforts were rewarded by the Peruvian government that granted him mining rights enabling him to begin operations with the aid of imported Cornish labour in a copper and silver mine in Caxatambo. But the area became embroiled in the War of Emancipation and Trevithick was conscripted to the army of Simon Bolívar, designing and building a gun for the rebels before being released back to civilian life. When he returned to his mine, the Spanish army overran the area and he once again had to flee.
By this time (1818) Uville had died and Trevithick returned to Cerro de Pasco to successfully transform the mines. Silver registration at Pasco rose by 350 per cent in 1820, an increase to the highest level since 1811, and the second highest figure ever recorded for Pasco, representing over 65 per cent of Peru’s total registered silver production for 1820. However, the war eventually reached the Pasco area, raging for at least four years. Silver production dwindled to a virtual halt as the mines changed hands several times, valuable machinery including the Cornish steam engines were either smashed or hidden and Trevithick escaped to Chile and thence to Ecuador and Central America.
He finally attempted to work the gold and silver mines of Coralillo, Quebrada-Honda and Padre Arias in the Costa Rican Cordilleras, planning to bring steam engines that had survived the war by sea from Lima, an ambitious scheme not likely to have met with success. Disillusioned, he returned to Cornwall to try and raise the necessary capital for his Costa Rican enterprise only for his plans to be rejected by mining magnates and potential financiers, the Williams' of Scorrier.
A hint of his future fate lay in the fact that his journey back to Cornwall was only made possible through the generosity of rival engineer Robert Stephenson, who had been working at the copper mines of Aroa in Colombia (now Venezuela), whom he met by chance in Cartagena. Trevithick arrived in Cornwall in 1827 with little to show for his 11 year absence and attempted to resume his engineering career without financial success. A petition to Parliament for a grant for his work in Cornish mines failed and this wayward genius died a virtual pauper in April 1833 at Dartford Kent where he was working on an engine.
But the Cornish remember him with true affection. Camborne town holds an annual 'Trevithick Day' to celebrate the memory of this talented and singularly minded Cornishman.
For more information on Trevithick see http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blrailroad8.htm