The “John Bull” Steam Locomotive

The World’s Oldest Operable Steam Engine

The John Bull was an English-built steam locomotive operated in the United States during the 19th Century.

The John Bull was built in Newcastle, England by Robert Stephenson and Company for Camden and Amboy Railroad in the United States. The locomotive was dismantled and shipped in crates across the Atlantic Ocean, where it was unloaded in New Jersey.(Camden and Amboy John Bull Replica,Johnson, Emory Richard (1908). American Railway Transportation. D. Appleton. pp. 41–42, John Bull Locomotive”. History Wired. Smithsonian Institution. . Retrieved on Apr.15/09)

The History of the John Bull

The locomotive was rebuilt and ran for the first time in September, 1831. In November of that year, Robert Stevens, the President of the railroad, organized a short excursion on the new train, inviting some prominent New Jersey politicians and local dignitaries. Following this event, which served to inaugurate the still unfinished railway, the locomotive was placed in storage. The railroad was complete in 1834.(Carter, Charles Frederick (1909). When Railroads Were New. H. H. Holt. Pg.140, Wilson, William Bender (1899). History of the Pennsylvania Railroad with Plan of Organization, . Vol 1. Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates and Company.)

In September 1836, the John Bull was shipped by canal to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where it became the first locomotive to operate in that area.(Whittemore, Henry (1909). Fulfillment of Three Remarkable Prophecies in the History of the Great Empire State Relating to the Development of Steamboat Navigation and Railroad Transportation. Pg.30)

The John Bull was originally built as a 0-4-0 locomotive, meaning that it had no guide wheels, four drive wheels and no trailing wheels. The power generated by the boiler drove two pistons which were mounted underneath the boiler and were connected directly to the axles via drive rods.

Due to the poor quality of track that existed at the time, the John Bull suffered numerous derailments early in its operational life. The locomotive was fitted with a guidance truck that held two small diameter wheels. This swivelling assembly allowed the locomotive to better negotiate curves, but necessitated the disconnection of the drive rods connecting the two forward wheels, making the John Bull a 4-2-0 locomotive. Other modifications followed, such as a cowcatcher for clearing debris and animals from the track. A cab was also added to protect the locomotive’s crew from the weather. Other modifications included a bell and a headlight.(Klein, Randolph Shipley and Bell, Whitfield Jenks (1986). Science and Society in Early America. Diane Publishing. Pg.283-187)

The John Bull on Display

By 1871, the Camden and Amboy Railroad had been absorbed by Pennsylvania Railroad and the John Bull had long since been rendered obsolete. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania Railroad chose to bring the locomotive out of retirement for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The John Bull was shown again in 1883 at the National Railway Appliance Exhibition. In 1885, the locomotive was purchased by the Smithsonian Institute.(Forney, M. N. (August 1888). “American Locomotives and Cars”. Scribner’s Magazine IV (2): p 177, White, John H., Jr. (1981). The John Bull: 150 Years a Locomotive. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC. Pg. 39)

The John Bull remained static for most of the next 80 years, leaving the museum only on rare occasions. The most notable of these was when the locomotive ran under its own power from Jersey City, New Jersey to Chicago, Illinois to take part in the Columbian World Exposition in 1893.

In 1927, the John Bull travelled outside of the museum again, this time to celebrate the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s 100th birthday. The locomotive’s tender was considered too fragile to move and an exact replica was built by Pennsylvania Railroad at its Altoona Workshop, the largest locomotive works in the world.

By this time, the locomotive was considered too delicate to move, so the Smithsonian celebrated the John Bull’s centennial by running the locomotive in place using compressed air instead of steam.(White, John H., Jr. (1981). The John Bull: 150 Years a Locomotive. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.Pg.45-46)

Restoring the John Bull

With the exception of two World Fairs, the locomotive remained on static display until 1981. At that time it underwent an extensive restoration, in preparation for its 150th birthday. On September 15, 1981, the John Bull became the world’s oldest operable steam locomotive when it ran on a Washington DC spur line. Today it remains on display at the Museum of American History in Washington DC.


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