In the annals of railway history conventional wisdom declares that the greatest pioneering mechanicals engineers were the Stephensons, George, and his son Robert, and that it was their achievements that resulted in steam power replacing horse power once and for all. One historian and author has, however, been looking more closely at what happened in those formative years and, having studied detailed data and first hand witness accounts, feels that it’s time to establish a new truth. He believes that he has amassed enough evidence to assert that much of the acclaim lavished upon the Stephensons should instead be directed toward Shildon’s own Timothy Hackworth.
In a new book, entitled “It Wasn’t Rocket Science,” Mike Norman builds a compelling case for looking again at events on both the Stockton and Darlington Railway and at the subsequent Rainhill Trials, the competition held in 1829 to determine which engineer was best suited to build and provide powerful locomotives for the Liverpool to Manchester Railway.
In contrast to many other factual engineering books, of which few are dedicated to Hackworth’s achievements, Mr Norman has found an innovative way to explain his case. Few here today are aware that at a huge exhibition, held in Chicago in 1893 and named the World’s Columbian Exposition or more commonly “The World’s Fair,” Timothy Hackworth was placed on a pedestal as a peer and equal to George Stephenson. The new book is told as a story, but remains firmly grounded in fact, and relates how two cousins, descended from Hackworth himself, were key to this realisation on the part of the exhibition organisers. It is a riveting trip back in time and a resounding clarion call to rally around Timothy Hackworth’s memory and be justly proud of his achievements here at his workshops in Shildon.
To launch his book, Mike Norman has chosen to bring it to Shildon, where much of the scientific and engineering magic happened, and of course where Timothy Hackworth’s remains still lie. Furthermore, he has chosen Hackworth’s own Railway Institute in Shildon, which he founded in 1833 and to which he served as first President, to be the hosts for his book launch event. Mr Norman will give an entertaining talk on how his research came about, his sources, and why his discoveries compelled him to set the record straight in this book, before taking questions on the subject.
A spokesperson for the Railway Institute said of the book launch event, “We’re absolutely delighted that Mike approached us about bringing his new book to Shildon to reveal to the world. So much is said of George Stephenson, and it would be tremendous to see our great founder recognised for what he was. We may be better known today for more social entertainments, but we should not forget that our very first role in the town was to bring books and news to our people. What better way to celebrate our 190th year, in part, than by helping Mike bring his work to our attention.”
The timing of the event is pertinent, as the Railway Institute has been planning to relaunch a feature for which it was once renowned. “We’ve been looking for some time at how we might acknowledge our past by bringing back a reference library of sorts, and partly through the kind intervention of the Friends of the Darlington Railway Museum we have managed to acquire and build an excellent collection of hundreds of books on local history, and both local and national rail history. These are now situated in a comfortable room we are naming the MacNay Room in honour of our first Secretary, Thomas MacNay. It’s an ideal space where local groups will be able to meet, or where folk can take time out to leaf through the books and magazines at leisure.”
The launch of “It Wasn’t Rocket Science” by Mike Norman will take place at 2:30pm in the Main Hall of the Railway Institute on Saturday 4th March 2023. After this a copy of the book will be placed in the newly returned library at the Institute as part of a formal unveiling of that facility by Timothy Hackworth’s descendent, Jane Hackworth-Young. Shildonians are welcome to attend and refreshments will be provided before the talk.
(Published Sun 26th March 2023)