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By Kate Campbell-Payne on

How Rocket got its name… and other naming tales from the Rainhill Trials

To celebrate the 189th anniversary of the Rainhill Trials, let’s take a look at how the names of the engines captured the spirit of the era, and how what you call something continues to shape how we think of the past and the future.

What’s in a name? Would a Rocket by any other name smell as sweet? These days, locomotives are often named after famous people or fictional characters (have you spotted Doctor Who on one of Virgin’s Voyager trains?) but what about the early locomotives?

Rainhill Trials from the Illustrated London News, c.1829. In the foreground is Rocket and in the background are Sans Pareil (right) and Novelty
Rainhill Trials from the Illustrated London News, c.1829. In the foreground is Rocket and in the background are Sans Pareil (right) and Novelty

Five locomotives entered the Rainhill Trials in an effort to prove rail travel was the future of transport, and for the chance that their engines could run on the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Much like the horses they were destined to replace and the ships travelling the world, each engine had its own name. The names encapsulated the hopes of their builders and the early Industrial Revolution era this new endeavour represented.

Steam wasn’t for everyone though, and Cycloped was a horse-powered ‘locomotive’. This equine treadmill was built by Thomas Shaw Brandreth who was also one of the railway’s directors. But when one of the horses fell through the wooden moving floor, it was forced to drop out of the competition. The horses also simply couldn’t compete with the speeds the mechanical engines produced.

The horse-powered locomotive Cycloped
The horse-powered locomotive Cycloped

Perseverance was built by John Reed Hill and Timothy Burstall. Burstall was from Leith and named the engine after his home town’s motto, “Persevere”. It was an apt name as it turned out—Perseverance was damaged on the way down to Rainhill and Burtstall spent days trying to repair it before finally running on the final day of the trials. Despite Burtstall’s own perseverance, the loco only achieved a speed of 6 mph.

Novelty, built by John Ericsson and John Braithwaite, had several new innovations and is now thought of as the world’s first tank locomotive, carrying its own water between the wheels. The designers clearly wanted to encapsulate their forward-thinking in its name. Novelty was a strong competitor, reportedly achieving a speed of 28 mph on the first day, but had to pull out due to boiler problems. It was also the crowd’s favourite, possibly because it did not look like a typical colliery engine of the time—it was, indeed, a novelty.

A replica that has parts of the original engine on display in our Power Hall
A replica that has parts of the original engine on display in our Power Hall

The French-named Sans Pareil was built by Timothy Hackworth from Shildon—you can see the engine at our sister museum there, Locomotion. Its name means ‘peerless’ or ‘without equal’ and it very nearly was. Despite its slightly antiquated engineering, the locomotive proved reliable. It was also bought by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and ran on the Bolton and Leigh Railway until 1844.

But perhaps the most evocatively named was the eventual winner and the engine now on display in our Revolution Manchester gallery: Rocket.

Rocket on display in our Revolution Manchester gallery
Rocket on display in our Revolution Manchester gallery

Why is Rocket called Rocket? When we hear it, we immediately think of space travel, but in 1829 journeying to the stars was unthinkable. So, what were rockets before rockets?

The word actually refers to the means of propulsion – whatever ‘rocket’ it is, it moves by expelling its exhaust in the opposite direction at high speed. The process is obvious in one of the earliest uses for rockets that we still have with us today—fireworks.

Rockets were used to propel arrows possibly as far back as the 10th century in China, and by the time of the Renaissance, rocket weapons were being developed that looked a lot like today’s missiles.

Illustration in Konrad Kyeser’s military treatise Bellifortis from around 1405
Illustration in Konrad Kyeser’s military treatise Bellifortis from around 1405

Rocket the locomotive is thought to be named after an 1804 British military weapon designed and developed by Sir William Congreve. That was based on Indian Mysorean rockets that were used against the British East India Company. Congreve rockets were used during the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, and the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824–1826 so would have been recent examples of Britain’s military prowess and technological innovation. They also travelled very fast and over long distances—the largest could travel over 2,700 metres—which could explain why Stephenson chose this name for his engine.

Firing a Congreve rocket from a tripod, 1814
Firing a Congreve rocket from a tripod, 1814

In the years to come, it was flying weaponry that led to space travel itself when the Germans developed the V-2 rocket in 1942 and it became the first man-made object to enter space.

While Rocket may not have been named after what we think of as spaceships, the interstellar connection with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway doesn’t end there. Other locomotives that the Robert Stephenson and Company produced to run on the line in 1830 included Planet, Comet, North Star, Mercury, Mars and Meteor (originally called Wildfire).

While there were plenty of other names such as Arrow, Dart and Phoenix, it is interesting to note that so many have a connection with space. We tend to think of a fascination with space as a very modern phenomenon but these names may point to the idea that dreaming of travelling to the stars is something humans have been pondering ever since we looked up at the night sky, and how this desire captured the very concepts of speed, power and futuristic innovation, especially at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

2 comments on “How Rocket got its name… and other naming tales from the Rainhill Trials

  1. As always, a brilliant blog. I look forward to reading each one.
    I am guessing it takes some time.
    Give up the day job and give us more blogs. 🤓

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