Unusual Steam Locomotives: Introduction.

Updated: 7 Oct 2003
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Steam really is extremely handy stuff for generating power.

A hundred years ago, almost everything was powered by steam or horses. Now almost everything is powered by steam or fossil fuels. The difference is that nowadays the steam engines are huge steam turbines in power stations, far remote from where the power is actually used.

In the past, before motor vehicles became common, the steam locomotive was the premier means of land transport, and quickly settled down to a standard basic form. However, experiment continued, and in this wing of The Museum of RetroTech are some remarkable variations on standard practice. At first sight some of these locomotives look like pure insanity, but with one or two dishonourable exceptions, their designers knew what they were about. They may not have all achieved the success they aimed for, but how many of us do?

The locomotives displayed here show wide variations in construction, purpose, and in how successful they were in fulfilling that purpose. Many of them show that their designers fell into the classic trap- aiming for small improvements in thermal efficiency by adding complexities. The truth is that in the world of steam, fuel is only one component of the costs, and fuel economy by no means the most important characteristic of a locomotive. The first requirement is always availability; the loco must be reliable, and maintainable with reasonable ease so that it is actually available for revenue-earning service. Adding extra machinery that reduced fuel consumption but added to the number of things that could go wrong was rarely, if ever, a good policy. Similarily, piling on complications that required skilled labour to keep them effective was also bad news, especially in countries where such labour was in short supply.

In the end, perhaps the most remarkable thing about steam locomotive technology was that despite innumerable experiments, in its final and most successful forms it was recognisably the same concept as that originated by George Stephenson.


NB: Very many of the early steam engines were "unusual", in the sense that they were usually one-offs built as their constructors groped towards the best technical solutions; there seems little point in enumerating them all, though some of the more peculiar, like The Hurricane, simply beg to be included. The machines shown here were almost all conceived after locomotive design had settled down to be fairly standard, and therefore truly merit the term unusual.

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