George Stephenson was born in Wylam, England, several miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1748, a wagonway -- an arrangement similar to a railway, but with wooden tracks and designed to support horse-drawn carts -- had been built from the Wylam colliery to the River Tyne, running for several miles. The young Stephenson grew up near it, and in 1802 gained employment as an engine-man at a coal mine. For the next ten years his knowledge of steam engines increased, until in 1812 he stopped operating them for a living, and started building them.
Stephenson designed his first locomotive in 1814, a travelling engine designed for hauling coal on a coal site. Named Blucher, it could haul 30 tons of coal in a load, and was the first successful flanged wheel adhesion locomotive (which is to say, it was the first locomotive to use flanged wheels to rest on the track, and that its traction depended only on the contact between the wheel and the track). Over the next five years, he built sixteen more engines.
As his success grew, Stephenson was hired to build an eight-mile railway from Hetton to Sunderland. The finished result used a combination of gravity pulling the load down inclines and locomotives for level and upward stretches, and was the first ever railway to use no animal power at all.
In 1821, a project began to build the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Originally the plan was to use horses to draw coal carts over metal rails, but after company director Edward Pease met with Stephenson he agreed to change plans. Work began in 1822, and in September 1825, Stephenson completed the first locomotive for the new railroad; named at first Active, it was soon renamed Locomotion. The Stockton and Darlington opened on 27 September 1825. Driven by Stephenson, Locomotion hauled an 80 ton load of coal and flour for nine miles over two hours, reaching a speed of 24 miles per hour over one stretch. The first purpose-built passenger car (dubbed Experiment) was also attached, and held a load of dignitaries for the opening journey. It was the first time passenger traffic had ever been run on a steam-driven locomotive railway.
While building the S&D railway, Stephenson had noticed that even small inclines greatly reduced the speed of his locomotives. He came to the conclusion that railways should be kept as level as possible. He used this knowledge while working on the Bolton and Leigh Railroad and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, executing a series of difficult cuts, embankments, and stone viaducts to smooth the route the railways took.
As the Liverpool & Manchester approached completion in 1829, the directors of that company arranged for a competition to decide who would build the locomotives for the new railway. The Rainhill Trials were run in October of that year. Stephenson's entry was The Rocket, and its impressive performance in winning the contest made it arguably the most famous machine in the world.
When the L&R opened on 15 September 1830, the opening ceremony was a considerable event, drawing luminaries from the government and industry, including the then Prime Minister, Earl Grey, and the Duke of Wellington. The day was marred by the death of a government minister who was struck and killed by one of the locomotives, but the railroad was a resounding success. Stephenson became a very famous man, and was offered the position of chief engineer for a wide variety of other railroads.
Rich and successful for the remainder of his career, George Stephenson passed away on 12 August 1848 in Chesterfield, England.
Stephenson's son, Robert Stephenson, was also a noted locomotive engineer, and was heavily involved in the creation of many of his father's engines from Locomotion onwards. Joseph Locke was initially apprenticed to George Stephenson, eventually being promoted to chief engineer on some of the schemes he instigated (eg: the Grand Junction Railway).