Tom Thumb (locomotive)

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Tom Thumb
Tom thumb peter coopers iron horse 6092027.jpg
A 1927 replica of Tom Thumb, the first American-built steam locomotive
Type and origin
Power type Steam
Builder Peter Cooper
Build date 1830
Configuration 2-2-0
Length 13 ft 2¾ in (4 m)
Height 12 ft 9 in (3.9 m)
Fuel type anthracite coal
Boiler 27 in dia × 66 in high
(686 mm × 1676 mm)
Cylinder size 5 in dia × 27 in stroke
(127 mm × 686 mm)
Performance figures
Power output 1.4 horsepower[1]
Operator(s) Baltimore and Ohio Railroad

Tom Thumb was the first American-built steam locomotive used on a common-carrier railroad. Designed and built by Peter Cooper in 1830, it was designed to convince owners of the newly formed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) to use steam engines. It is especially remembered as a participant in an impromptu race with a horse-drawn car, which the horse won after Tom Thumb suffered a mechanical failure. However, the demonstration was successful; and in the following year, the railroad committed to the use of steam locomotion and held trials for a working engine.[2]:11


The first railroads were little more than tracks on roads: horses pulled wagons and carriages with their wheels modified to ride on the rails. Only when the development of the steam engine had progressed to the point where such an engine could be mounted on wheels could trains be moved by steam power. The first steam locomotives were built in England, the birthplace of steam power; the first locomotives in America were imported from England. Soon, however, Americans began to plan their own locomotives.[3]

Design and construction[edit]

Tom Thumb was designed by Peter Cooper as a four-wheel locomotive with a vertical boiler and vertically mounted cylinders that drove the wheels on one of the axles. The "design" was characterized by a host of improvisations. The boiler tubes were made from rifle barrels[2]:11 and a blower was mounted in the stack, driven by a belt to the powered axle.[2]:12 [4] The engine was fueled by anthracite coal.[5]

Cooper's interest in the railroad was by way of substantial real estate investment in what is now the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore. Success for the railroad was expected to increase the value of his holdings.[2]:11

Construction was carried out in the machine shop of George W. Johnson, where the 18-year-old James Millholland was apprenticed.[6] Millholland would later become a prominent locomotive designer in his own right.


The Tom Thumb replica in action.
1831 drawing of a locomotive (likely the "Tom Thumb") in Baltimore.

Testing was performed on the company's track between Baltimore and Ellicott Mills (now Ellicott City, Maryland). Two tracks had been constructed, and on August 28, 1830, the driver of a passing horse-drawn car bearing passengers challenged the locomotive to a race.[7] The challenge accepted, Tom Thumb was easily able to pull away from the horse until the belt slipped off the blower pulley. Without the blower, the boiler did not draw adequately and the locomotive lost power, allowing the horse to pass and win the race. Nonetheless, it was realized that the locomotive offered superior performance.[5]


Tom Thumb was not intended for revenue service, and was not preserved, though Cooper and others associated with the railroad's early days left descriptions which enabled the general dimensions and appearance to be worked out. In 1892, a wooden model was constructed by Major Joseph Pangborn, a western newspaperman and publicist, who also had models made of many other early locomotives.[8] In 1927 the B&O hosted a centennial exhibition near Baltimore, titled "Fair of the Iron Horse," and had a replica constructed for the exhibition.[8][9] This replica followed Pangborn's model and therefore differed considerably from the original, being somewhat larger and heavier, and considerably taller (note that the dimensions given above are those of the replica). Also, instead of the blower in the stack, a much larger blower was mounted on the platform to provide a forced draft, and the support frame of the cylinder and guides was considerably different.

The replica remains on display at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d Sagle, Lawrence (1964). B&O Power: Steam, Diesel and Electric Power of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 1829-1964. Medina, OH: Alvin F. Staufer. 
  3. ^ Hamilton Ellis (1968). The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Railways. The Hamlyn Publishing Group. pp. 24–30. 
  4. ^ "First locomotive built in America". Railway Age (Simmons-Boardman Publishing): p. 58. September 2006. ISSN 0033-8826. 
  5. ^ a b Stover, John F. (1987). History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press. pp. 35–36. ISBN 0-911198-81-4. 
  6. ^ White, John H., Jr. (1968). A history of the American locomotive; its development: 1830-1880. New York, NY: Dover Publications. p. 455. ISBN 0-486-23818-0. 
  7. ^ "1830 - The Iron Horse Wins". Federal Highway Administration. Retrieved May 20, 2011. 
  8. ^ a b Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum, Baltimore, MD. "History of the Museum." Accessed 2013-04-18.
  9. ^ Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, MD (2000). "The Fair of the Iron Horse." Accessed 2013-04-18.
  10. ^ B&O Railroad Museum. "Collections: Tom Thumb." Accessed 2013-04-18.

Further reading[edit]

  • "Tom Thumb". Bulletin (The Railway and Locomotive Historical Society, Inc.) (73): 48. May 1948.