Phineas Davis

Phineas Davis

Phineas Davis (? – September 27, 1835) was a well-known clockmaker and inventor who designed and built the first practical American coal-burning railroad locomotive.

Davis lived in York, Pennsylvania from 1809 to 1833, where he gained a national reputation as a jeweler, watchmaker and clockmaker. With his partner Jonathan Jessop, Davis invested in an iron foundry in York. This facility constructed the "Codorus", the first iron steamboat made in America. The "Codorus", designed by John Elgar, was launched at present-day Accomac (two miles north of Wrightsville) on the Susquehanna River on November 22 1825.

On August 28 1830, New York inventor Peter Cooper had publicly demonstrated his diminutive locomotive, later known as "Tom Thumb". It successfully hauled 15 tons at 4 miles per hour, and without a load reached speeds in excess of 15 miles per hour. The fledgling Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) was impressed with Cooper’s early success, but instead of immediately offering him their business for locomotives, the company planned an open competition with a prize of $4,000. Five prototype locomotives were entered into the contest in early 1831, although Cooper did not participate. Phineas Davis’s design, "York", was chosen as the winner. It was a four-wheeled, vertical boiler locomotive that was somewhat similar to Cooper's design, but featured two vertical cylinders that drove vertical main rods. These in turn connected to horizontal side rods that powered the wheels. The first locomotive to burn coal, "York" was also the first with coupled wheels and a double instead of a single pair of drivers. It weighed 3½ tons and attained velocity by gearing, using a spur wheel and pinion on one of the axles of the wheels. Davis’ upright “cheese boiler” consisted of a water jacket surrounding a central furnace, and a shallow drum suspended above the grates. The drum when viewed through the firedoor was thought to resemble a cheese, thus giving the entire assembly its name.

In September 1831, Cooper proposed building six locomotives based upon his own design for the B&O. The railroad agreed to his proposal, but when he failed to deliver on schedule, Cooper sold his patent to the B&O. Davis soon incorporated some of Cooper’s ideas into an improvement on his "York" design. Aided by Ross Winans, Davis in 1832 constructed a second locomotive that proved to be far more commercially successful than his first. This was the "Atlantic", which employed Cooper's vertical firetube boiler. Built at a cost of $4,500, "Atlantic" weighed 6½ tons and had two vertical cylinders. Ox teams were used to convey the engine to Baltimore, where it made a successful inaugural trip to Ellicott's Mills, Maryland, a distance of thirteen miles. Nicknamed "Grasshopper" for its distinctive vertical pushrods, the locomotive carried 50 pounds of steam and burned a ton of anthracite coal on a 40-mile trip from Baltimore. Davis’s 0-4-0 design proved reasonably successful, and 20 such locomotives were constructed at the B&O's Mount Clare Shops. Some operated for more than 60 years, and were finally retired in the 1890s. One was prominently exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

Phineas Davis was killed when "York" derailed in 1835 due to defective track. His partner, Ross Winans, went on to develop a line of locomotives incorporating both Davis' and Cooper's designs.

Members of the Engineering Society of York sponsored a pair of memorials to Davis in 1924. An elementary school in York is named for the inventor. A commemorative tablet marks the site of Davis's early shop at the northwest corner of King and Newberry streets in York.


* Files of the York County Heritage Trust, York, PA.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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