I have recently read in The Book of Secrets that the first time the steam locomotive started in England no one was willing to sit in it even after being paid money to do so because no one thought it would stop once started. In the end, it was proved by having 12 prisoners ride in it. Is this story true? I have my doubts since I can't find any similar info on the web.

Do you know what happened in England? When the first train started, no one was ready to sit in it -- no one! Many people were persuaded, bribed, they were given money to sit in the train, but at the last point they escaped. They said, "Firstly, steam cannot do such miracles. Such a simple thing as steam cannot do such miracles. And if the engine starts, that means that the devil is at work somewhere. The devil is running the thing, it is not the steam. And what is the guarantee that once the thing starts you will be capable of stopping it?"

So twelve criminals from the jail were brought as passengers. Anyhow they were going to die, anyhow they were sentenced to death, so there was no problem if the train was not going to stop. Then the mad driver who thought that it was going to stop, the scientist who had invented it and these twelve passengers who were anyhow going to be killed, they alone would all be killed. "Such a simple thing as steam," they said at that time. But now no one says this, because now it is working and you know it.

  • Doubtful. What is the title of this "spiritual book"? By "first time the steam locomotive started", do you know which incident it is speaking of exactly?
    – Semaphore
    Jul 11, 2014 at 14:18
  • its the Book of Secrets by Osho. Its using it as an example to fear in taking first steps of meditation. The book gives very little info but I will add the large body of text to my question. Jul 11, 2014 at 14:42
  • 2
    I'm suspicious this story was invented by a modern person with an anachronistic view of the first locomotives. The first locomotives were both slower than horses and easier to stop than horses (the horse can choose to ignore your request to stop). And if necessary, all but the most woefully uncoordinated could just jump off at any time they wish. If anything, people would have been afraid of (the very real danger of) the engine exploding and scalding them to death.
    – David H
    Jul 11, 2014 at 15:25
  • 2
    My guess is that the questioner was probably also highly suspicious of this story, which is why they asked.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 11, 2014 at 15:48
  • 2
    I think that you will find that everything in "The Book of Secrets" is at a similar level of stupidity.
    – fdb
    Jul 11, 2014 at 18:49

3 Answers 3


The best candidate for protagonist in this story is probably William Murdoch, an employee of Boulton and Watt's who had an interest in using Watt's steam engine concepts for locomotion.

What is well-documented is that in 1784 he built a working model in his living room (yes, household model trains are older than real trains!), and then probably another larger one that he nearly patented.

Sadly not much else is known, and there are all sorts of wonderful apocryphal stories floating around about what he did next.

The next best candidate would be Richard Trevithick. He moved next door to Mr. Murdoch, and soon took up the mantle. He created the first documented full-scale operating passenger steam carriage in 1801, and carried 6 (not 12) passengers. Interestingly, the best documentation I could find for this is actually a folk song. Obviously not the most reliable of references, but it does mention a female passenger wearing white stockings (so probably not a prisoner).

  • could be something folksy derived from those sources Jul 11, 2014 at 16:07

Seems to be an apocryphal story.

The first steam locomotive that transported passengers is thought to be the Puffing Devil, created by Cornish inventor Richard Trevithick. Its first demonstration was on Christmas Eve 1801, after being assembled in a Redruth blacksmith shop. The event became a passenger carrying exercise because bystanders jumped on to the engine as it started. It seems highly unlikely that any of them could possibly be prisoners.

Twas a stiffish hill going from the Weith up to Camborne Beacon, but she went off like a little bird. When she had gone about a quarter of a mile, there was a roughish piece of road covered with loose stones; she didn’t go quite so fast, and as it was flood of rain and we were very squeezed together, I jumped off. She was going faster than I could walk, and went on up the hill about a quarter or half a mile farther, when they turned her and came back again to the shop.

-- Stephen Williams, a local cooper

Trevithick's London Steam Carriage is the first steam locomotive passenger vehicle. It had a capacity of about eight people maximum; so the number doesn't fit with "12 prisoners" right off the bat. Moreover, there is no evidence they used prisoners at all.

The first steam locomotive train was the Pen-y-Darren Locomotive. On 21 February 1804, it hauled 70 passengers and 10 tons of iron from Penydarren 16km to to Abercynon. Again the numbers alone doesn't fit. Again, no evidence of prisoners.

In no cases were there any hint of prisoners being used experimentally, so to speak, on locomotives. Nor should there have been reason to; steam was not magic and various attempts at steam locomotives had been going on for decades by the time "the first train started". As evidenced by the Puffing Devil's experience, it is hardly necessary to resort to condemned criminals to find people willing to test.

Most likely the author simply invented a (rather unbelievable) story to support his ideas.

  • 1
    Well, referenced, and the content matches up well with what I found in my researches, so +1.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 11, 2014 at 15:44

The idea that the first steam engine powered locomotive was treated as such magic is ludicrous, the steam engine was invented in the first century AD, but first became commercially useful during the industrial revolution, with the Newcomen Atmospheric Engine, which was used to pump water out of mines (that's a problem when you dig bellow sea level!) which was developed in 1712.

On February 21, 1804 (92 years later!!!) in Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales first steam train, developed by Richard Trevithick, was demonstrated.

So, really, no, the idea that 92 years after the first commercial steam engine was marketed, people were mystified by the idea of steam powering movement is just crazy.

And your book got the country wrong.

  • 1
    Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. The advent of steam-powered motion caught the public by surprise to more of an extent than you might expect. A fantastic bit of circumstantial evidence supporting this is Adam Smith's Wealth of Nation, published 1776. In his discussion of identification and valuation of national resources, the only use for coal was in providing heat for workers.
    – David H
    Jul 11, 2014 at 22:31
  • Absolutely, but while many people may have been mystified by the concept plenty would already have experience of steam power, making the suggestion that death row inmates were the only possible highly implausible. But really the biggest flaw is that the source says the first locomotive was demonstrated in England, when it was actually done in Wales. Jul 12, 2014 at 10:23
  • 1
    It's interesting to note that the first steam engines were operated by vacuum (they didn't even try to pressurize the steam); achieving a power/weight sufficient for a self-propelled vehicle requires a very different (and more dangerous) high-pressure design. The 92 year delay between the first engine and the first locomotive aren't a result of "nobody thought of putting an engine on a vehicle" but rather, the fact that it took awhile for engines to evolve to the point that they could drive a vehicle. Note also that the style of engine used in locomotives...
    – supercat
    Jul 12, 2014 at 17:18
  • ...lacks a condenser, which is an essential aspect of most stationary-engine designs, and would thus not be well suited to purposes where the bulk of a condenser and cooling system would not pose a problem.
    – supercat
    Jul 12, 2014 at 17:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.