This charming mid-19th-century hand-coloured lithograph depicts the ‘Enterprise Steam Omnibus’, the most successful steam carriage of its period.
In the early 19th century, long-distance travel was predominantly undertaken by horse-drawn carriages. Yet, every so often, the clitter-clatter of hooves was abruptly overshadowed by the whir of steam-powered technology. From around 1801, several plucky inventors began developing carriages which could propel themselves via steam. The majority were notoriously unreliable, often breaking down, too slow to be practical, and occasionally exploding.
The first steam-powered carriage, invented by Richard Trevithick of Cornwall, made its debut in 1801. It was known as ‘The Puffing Devil’ or ‘Captain Dick’s Puffer’ and said to cause quite a fright when trundling towards you. But this, like several others, couldn’t sustain the rigours of regular long distance trips, which were required to support the cost of running them.
Walter Hancock’s (1799-1852) carriages were different. They became the first to run regularly - initially from Stratford and London via the ‘Infant’, a ten-seater bus, and in 1833, between London Wall and Paddington via ‘The Enterprise’, which we see here. Hancock’s machines were revolutionary due to his patented steam boiler (which had less risk of exploding). The Enterprise also had a pioneering suspended engine along with several other clever additions.
Driving it was a tricky affair with three operators required - one to steer and control the speed, a second to monitor the boiler’s water level, and a third to maintain the fire. It’s unclear how the three communicated over the omnipresent din.
In total, Hancock’s machines carried 12,761 passengers across 4,200 miles, an incredible achievement given the constraints of the day and the condition of the roads. The Enterprise was lauded in Europe and the US, with this particular image featuring in the New York press.
The lithograph is based upon an earlier engraving and is hand-coloured. A wonderful glimpse into the life of a tireless British inventor.
You can learn more about Hancock’s steam carriages at the Virtual Steam Car Museum.
Framed and glazed.
Medium: Lithograph on paper
Overall size: 26” x 23” / 66cm x 59cm
Year of creation: c. 1850
Condition: Artwork presents well. One minor tear towards the top.