George Stephenson was born on June 9, 1781, in the coal mining village of Wylam, England. His father, Robert Stephenson, was a poor, hardworking man, that supported his family entirely from wages of twelve shillings a week.
Wagons loaded with coal passed through Wylam several times a day. These wagons were drawn by horses -- locomotives had not yet been invented. George Stephenson's first job was to watch over a few cows owned by a neighbor which were allowed to feed along the road; George was paid two cents a day to keep the cows out of the way of the coal-wagons; and also, to close the gates after the day's work of the wagons was over.
George Stephenson - Life in the Coal Mines
George Stephenson's next job was at the mines as a picker. His duty was to clean the coal of stone, slate, and other impurities. Eventually, George Stephenson worked at several coal mines as a fireman, plugman, brakeman, and engineer.
However, in his spare time George loved to tinker with any engine or piece of mining equipment that fell into his hands. He became skilled at adjusting and even repairing the engines found in the mining pumps, even though at that time he could not read or write. As a young adult, George paid for and attended night school where he learned to read, write, and do arithmetic. In 1804, George Stephenson walked on foot to Scotland to take a job working in a coal mine that used one of JAMES WATT’S steam engines, the best steam engines of the day.
In 1807, George Stephenson considered emigrating to America; but he was too poor to pay for the passage. He began work nights repairing shoes, clocks, and watches, making extra money that he would spend on his inventing projects.
Steam locomotives were first developed in Great Britain during the early 19th century and dominated railway transport until the middle of the 20th century. From the early 1900s they were gradually superseded by electric and diesel locomotives.