Trevithick's steam circus


Richard Trevithick’s Catch Me Who Can

Trevithick's steam circus
Trevithick’s steam circus

Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) was an important figure in the early development of steam technology. The Catch Me Who Can was the fourth (and last) of his steam railway locomotives. Built in 1808 by Rastrick and Hazledine, it was demonstrated to the public at a “steam circus” organised by Trevithick on a circular track. His earlier contributions include the first successful high-pressure steam engines; successful steam carriages, one of which was demonstrated along Tottenham Court Road in London; and the first steam locomotive to run on rails, at Penydarren Iron Works in 1804.

It was this 1804 technology Trevithick demonstrated at his London steam circus.  Research by Nick Tyler (Newcomen Society) has found that the most likely location of the track was under the University College London’s Chadwick Building, which appropriately now houses the Centre for Transport Studies.  The original plan seems to have been to race the engine against ‘any mare, horse or gelding which may be produced’, and advertisements to this effect were placed in several newspapers.  This race does not seem to have taken place, but during July and August Catch Me Who Can was run on a circular track within a fenced enclosure.  Observers were admitted for a shilling; this included a ride for those sufficiently brave.  Catch Me Who Can also demonstrated that it was possible to run a locomotive with smooth wheels on a smooth rail, without the need for a rack.

Trevithick's portable steam engine of 1808, "Catch me who can"
Trevithick’s portable steam engine of 1808, “Catch me who can” signed ticket

After some weeks, one of the rails broke and the engine flew off at a tangent and overturned, and it seems that the number of shillings which had been received was insufficient for Trevithick to restore it to the rails.  Disenchanted by the lack of public interest, Trevithick moved on to other matters, and never returned to railway locomotives.  The eventual fate of the engine is unclear, but it is likely that it was worked as a stationary engine.

Trevithick died in 1833.  He was penniless, but is credited with the following statement:

‘However I may be straightened in my pecuniary circumstances, the great honour of being a useful subject can never be taken away from me, which to me far exceeds riches.’

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers


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