John Bull (locomotive)

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John Bull
John Bull
The John Bull, c. 1893.
Power type Steam
BuilderRobert Stephenson and Company
Build date1831
Configuration4-2-0 (although built by Stephenson as an 0-4-0)
UIC classification1'1A (built as B)
Gaugeft 8½ in (1435 mm)
Driver size4 ft 6 in (1.37 m) diameter
Wheelbase4 ft 11 in (1.4 m) between driving axles
Frame size14 ft 9 in (4.5 m) length x 6 ft 3 in (1.9 m) width
Boiler2 ft 6 in (0.76 m) diameter x 6 ft 9 in (2.06 m) length
Fire grate area10.07 ft² (0.935 m²)
Cylinder size9 in (22.86 cm) diameter x 20 in (50.8 cm) stroke
CareerCamden and Amboy Railroad,
Pennsylvania Railroad (initial preservation)
Official nameStevens (after C&A president Robert L. Stevens)
DeliveredSeptember 4 1831
First runSeptember 15 1831
RestoredSeptember 15 1981
Current ownerSmithsonian Institution
DispositionStatic display in Washington, D.C.

The John Bull is an English-built railroad steam locomotive, operated for the first time on September 15, 1831; it became the oldest operable steam locomotive in the world (150 years) when the Smithsonian Institution operated it in 1981. Built by Robert Stephenson and Company, the John Bull was initially purchased by and operated for the Camden and Amboy Railroad, the first railroad built in New Jersey. The railroad rostered it as locomotive number 1 and used it heavily from soon after the railroad's construction in 1833 until 1866 when it was removed from active service and placed in storage.

After the C&A's assets were acquired by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) in 1871, the PRR refurbished and operated the locomotive a few times for public displays. The John Bull was steamed up for the Centennial Exposition in 1876 and again for the National Railway Appliance Exhibition in 1883. In 1884 the locomotive was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution as the museum's first major industrial exhibit.

In 1939 the employees at the PRR's Altoona, Pennsylvania, shops built an operable replica of the locomotive for further exhibition duties as the Smithsonian desired to keep the original locomotive in a more controlled environment. The Smithsonian commemorated the locomotive's 150th birthday in grand style. The locomotive became the world's oldest surviving operable steam locomotive when it ran again under its own power in 1981. Today, the original John Bull is on static display in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and the replica John Bull operates regularly at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

Construction and initial use

The John Bull and train as it looked in 1831; drawn by Isaac Dripps in 1887. Image from the collection of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, America On The Move exhibit, used with permission.

The John Bull was built in Newcastle, England by Robert Stephenson and Company for the Camden and Amboy Railroad (C&A), the first railroad built in New Jersey. It was dismantled and then shipped across the Atlantic Ocean in crates aboard the Allegheny. C&A engineer Isaac Dripps reconstructed the locomotive to the best of his knowledge (the shipment did not include any drawings or instructions to assemble the locomotive) and ran it for the first time in September 1831. On November 12 1831, Robert Stevens (then president of the C&A) repaid some political debts by inviting several members of the New Jersey legislature and some local dignitaries, including Napoleon's nephew Prince Murat, for rides behind the newly delivered locomotive over a short test track. The prince's wife made a point of hurrying onto the train so she could be declared the first woman to ride a steam-powered train in America.

Until the railroad construction was completed, the locomotive was placed in storage; horse-drawn cars served the construction efforts until 1833. The C&A applied both numbers and names to their first locomotives, giving this engine the number 1 and officially naming it Stevens (after the C&A's first president, Robert L. Stevens). However, through regular use of the engine, crews began calling it the old John Bull, a reference to the cartoon personification of England, John Bull. Eventually the informal name was shortened to John Bull and this name was much more widely used until the Stevens name fell out of use in favor of John Bull.

Mechanical modifications and early exhibitions

Stephenson built the locomotive originally as an 0-4-0 (an 0-4-0 is the Whyte notation for a steam locomotive with two powered axles and no unpowered leading or trailing axles). The locomotive's power was transmitted to the driving axles through pistons that were mounted under the boiler between the two front wheels and in front of the front axle. These inside cylinders' main rods were connected to a rear crank axle with a connecting rod between the two axles to power the front axle.

John Bull as it appeared in 1877. Note the cab and wider exhaust stack. Image from the collection of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, America On The Move exhibit, used with permission.

Due to poorer quality track than was the norm in its native England, the locomotive had much trouble with derailment; the C&A's engineers added a leading truck (an assembly consisting of an unpowered axle with smaller diameter wheels that was connected to the frame and pushed in front of the locomotive) to help guide the engine into curves. The leading truck's mechanism necessitated the removal of the connecting rod between the two main axles, leaving only the rear axle powered. Effectively, the John Bull became a 4-2-0 (a locomotive with two unpowered leading axles followed by one powered axle and no unpowered trailing axles). Later, the C&A also added a cowcatcher to the lead truck. The cowcatcher is an angled assembly designed to deflect animals and debris off of the railroad track in front of the locomotive. To protect the locomotive's crew from the weather, the C&A also added walls and a roof (a cab) to the rear of the locomotive where the controls were located. C&A shop crews also added safety features such as a bell and headlight.

After several years serving as a switching engine (a locomotive used for moving railroad cars around within a railroad yard; also known as a shunter) and stationary boiler, the John Bull was retired in 1866 and stored in Bordentown, New Jersey. Toward the end of its life in revenue service, the locomotive worked as a pump engine and as the power for a sawmill.

The C&A was soon absorbed into the United New Jersey Railroad and Canals Company (1869) which itself was merged into the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) in 1871. The PRR saw the potential publicity to be gained by exhibiting such an old engine and PRR shop forces "back-dated" the engine (by replacing some original parts with parts that "looked" old or by removing them entirely). The exhaust stack was replaced with a straight tube of metal and the cab walls and roof were removed. The PRR then exhibited the engine in 1883 at the National Railway Appliance Exhibition in Chicago, Illinois. The following year, the Smithsonian Institution purchased John Bull from the PRR as the Institution's first large engine purchase.

Smithsonian Institution and locomotive restoration

At the exhibition in 1883, the Pennsylvania Railroad ended up resolving two problems at once. In the Smithsonian Institution, the railroad was able to find a home for the historic locomotive as well as a suitable new employer for a young civil engineer named J. Elfreth Watkins. Watkins had been involved in an accident on the railroad in New Jersey a few years before the exhibition. In the accident, he had lost a leg so he was no longer suited to the physical demands of railroad work (although the railroad did employ him as a clerk for a while after his accident). The PRR employed his engineering experience as an expert curator for the Smithsonian's new Arts and Industries Building which was opened in 1880. The locomotive's first public exhibition at the Smithsonian occurred on December 22 1884, where it was displayed in the East Hall of the Arts and Industries building.

John Bull at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.

The locomotive remained on display in this location for nearly 80 years, but it was transported for display outside the museum on certain rare occasions. The most significant display in this time occurred in 1893 when the locomotive traveled to Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition. The Pennsylvania Railroad, like many other railroads of the time, put on grand displays of their progress; the PRR arranged for the locomotive and a couple of coaches to be delivered to the railroad's Jersey City, New Jersey, shops where it would undergo a restoration of sorts to operating condition. The PRR was planning an event worthy of the locomotive's significance to American railroad history—the railroad actually planned to operate the locomotive for the entire distance between New Jersey and Chicago.

The restoration was supervised by the PRR's chief mechanical officer, Theodore N. Ely. Ely was confident enough in its 50-mile (80.5 km) test run to Perth Amboy, New Jersey (which took two hours and fifteen minutes), that the Governors of all the states that the locomotive was to pass through and then President of the United States Grover Cleveland were invited to ride behind the engine on its first leg toward Chicago. The John Bull was to pull a few passenger cars in a train that would carry dignitaries and representatives of the press. The train traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, under one crew; starting in Philadelphia, local engineers (train drivers) were employed to ride on the locomotive's footplate as pilots to advise the operators for the trip over the local engineers' territories for the rest of the journey to Chicago. Traveling at 25 to 30 mph (40 to 50 km/h), the train reached Chicago on April 22. The locomotive operated during the exhibition giving rides to the exhibition's attendees, and then the train left Chicago on December 6 for the return trip to Washington. The locomotive arrived back in Washington on December 13.

In 1927 the John Bull again traveled outside the museum. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was celebrating its centenary that year in its Fair of the Iron Horse in Baltimore, Maryland. Since the locomotive's original tender (fuel and water car) had deteriorated beyond repair and was dismantled in 1910, the PRR built a replica of the tender at its Altoona, Pennsylvania, shops. The locomotive was also refurbished in Altoona for operation during the fair. This fair was the last steam up for the locomotive until 1980.

(Mostly) static display

The John Bull on display in the East Hall c. 1920.

After the locomotive returned to the Smithsonian, it remained on static display. The museum in 1930 commissioned the Altoona shops to build a second replica of the locomotive's tender for display with the locomotive in the museum. This time, however, the replica tender used some of the original tender's fittings that the museum still had from the tender's dismantlement twenty years before.

The Smithsonian recognized the locomotive's age in 1931. But, since the museum didn't have the funds to refurbish the locomotive for full operation again, it was decided to run the locomotive in place (with the driving wheels lifted off the rails using jacks) with compressed air. The museum borrowed an 1836 coach from the Pennsylvania Railroad to display on the track behind the newly rebuilt tender, and the locomotive's 100th birthday was officially celebrated on November 12 1931. The locomotive's semi-operation was broadcast over the CBS radio network with Stanley Bell narrating the ceremonies for the radio audience.

The PRR again borrowed the locomotive in 1939 for the Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago. Unlike its earlier jaunt to Chicago, for this trip, the railroad hauled and displayed it as a static exhibit. While this exhibit was proceeding the Altoona shops were busy again building a replica; this time the replica was an operable copy of the locomotive itself. The replica was then operated in 1940 at the New York World's Fair, while the original locomotive and rebuilt tender returned to the Smithsonian.

The original locomotive was displayed outside the museum one more time in 1939, but the museum's curators decided that the locomotive was becoming too fragile for repeated outside exhibits. It was then placed in somewhat permanent display back in the East Hall where it remained for the next 25 years. The locomotive was moved to its current home, the National Museum of American History (then called the National Museum of History and Technology), in 1964.

Operating again after 150 years

The John Bull in operation in 1981. Image from the collection of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

The John Bull had remained on static display for another 15 years, but the locomotive's significance as one of the oldest locomotives in existence, or its use on the first railroad in New Jersey was not very plainly noted in the display's literature. As 1981 and the locomotive's 150th birthday approached, the Smithsonian started discussions on how best to commemorate the locomotive's age and significance. There was very little question that special publications and exhibits would be prepared, but museum officials were left with the thought that the exhibit could still be so much more than that.

Many superficial inspections were performed on the locomotive in 1980 and it was found to be in relatively sound mechanical condition. There wasn't a significant amount of deterioration noted in these early inspections, and when the wheels were jacked off the rails, like they had been 50 years earlier, the axles were found to be freely operable. One morning in January 1980, before the museum opened to the public that day, museum officials used compressed air to power the cylinders and move the wheels through the connecting rods for the first time since its last semi-operation. After the compressed air blew some dirt and debris out of the locomotive's exhaust stack, it was soon ticking along as if it was meant to be operated again.

The running gear seemed to be in good order, but it was still unknown if the boiler could still handle the pressure of steam and a live fire again. The museum asked the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company to inspect the locomotive's boiler for operation. The inspections were conducted after hours at the museum (from 6:30 p.m. to 4:00 a.m.) over three days and included electromagnetic, ultrasonic and radiographic tests. The tests did reveal a few flaws, but it was projected that the engine could operate at a reduced boiler pressure of 50 psi (340 kPa or 3.5 kgf/cm²); as delivered to the Camden & Amboy, the boiler was rated for 70 psi (480 kPa or 4.9 kgf/cm²). The Smithsonian's staff, after a few further hydrostatic tests, were confident that the locomotive could again operate under its own power.

The items that needed repair were repaired and the locomotive operated under steam on September 15 1981, outside Washington, D.C.. On this exhibition, the locomotive became the oldest operable steam locomotive in the world.

The original John Bull is currently housed and displayed at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The replica of the John Bull, built in 1939, is currently owned and operated by the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.


  • June 18 1831: The John Bull is constructed by Stephenson and Company in England.
  • July 14 1831: The John Bull departs Liverpool bound for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  • September 4 1831: The John Bull arrives in Philadelphia, aboard the ship Allegheny from Liverpool.
  • September 15 1831: The John Bull makes its first runs in New Jersey under its own power.
  • November 12 1831: Robert Stevens hosts a group of New Jersey politicians on a series of trial runs pulled by the John Bull.
  • 1833: The John Bull is one of a few locomotives operating on the newly completed Camden and Amboy Railroad.
  • 1866: The John Bull is retired from regular service.
  • 1876: The John Bull is displayed at the United States Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
  • 1883: The Pennsylvania Railroad displays John Bull at the National Railway Appliance Exhibition in Chicago, Illinois.
  • 1884: The Smithsonian Institution acquires the John Bull from the Pennsylvania Railroad
  • 1893: The John Bull operates at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL.
  • 1910: The original tender, now deteriorated beyond repair, is dismantled by Smithsonian staff. Usable fittings from the tender are placed in storage.
  • 1927: The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad borrows the John Bull to operate at the Fair of the Iron Horse in Baltimore, Maryland.
  • 1930: A replica tender is commissioned by the Smithsonian and built by the Pennsylvania Railroad using the fittings previously salvaged from the original tender; the new tender is displayed with the locomotive at the museum.
  • November 12 1931: The Smithsonian celebrates the locomotive's 100th "birthday", using compressed air to operate the stationary engine (stabilized on jacks) within the museum's exhibit hall.
  • 1933-1934: The Pennsylvania Railroad borrows the John Bull to display it at the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, IL.
  • 1939: The original John Bull makes its final public appearance outside the Smithsonian for another 39 years when it is displayed in the opening of the New York World's Fair
  • 1940: A replica of the John Bull, built by engineers at the Pennsylvania Railroad's Juniata Shops in Altoona, Pennsylvania, is displayed at the New York World's Fair, while the original is returned to the Smithsonian.
  • September 15 1981: The John Bull operates on the 150th anniversary of its first use, becoming the oldest operable steam locomotive in the world.
  • 1985: The John Bull is carried aboard an airplane for an exhibition in Dallas, Texas, making it the oldest locomotive in the world to travel by air.


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