Sunday, July 2, 2023

Matthias Baldwin, Inventor of the Steam Locomotive

Blogger: Amber Lemus

Continuing our series on lesser-known inventors, today we're learning about Matthias Baldwin. He's an American inventor best known for his invention of the steam locomotive, but he also has a fantastic legacy that I'm excited to share with you all today. 

Matthias Baldwin
Public Domain

Matthias Baldwin was born December 10, 1795, the fifth child of a prosperous carriage maker in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. When Matthias was only four years old, his father passed away, leaving his estate in the hands of executors who did not properly manage it. This left Matthias and his mother and siblings in dire financial circumstances. 

Even during his younger years, Matthias showed a talent and interest in how things worked, and how they were put together. He was known to dismantle toys to figure out how they worked, and then try to piece them back together. Soon, his mother's home was his makeshift workshop as well. 

As was common in those days, Matthias began an apprenticeship at the age of 16. Woolworth Brothers of Frankford, Pennsylvania employed him until 1817 when he and his mother moved to Philadelphia. He continued in the jewelry making profession there also, and soon became employed by one of the top jewelers in the city. 

Over the next few years, Matthias proved himself to be an incredible craftsman with an innovative mind. He came up with a new way of making gold plate, which revolutionized the industry. However, he didn't ever patent that process, so he never was able to capitalize on it financially. 

During the mid 1820's, the bottom fell out of the market for silverware and jewelry. This caused Matthias to look for a new source of income. He ended up partnering with a machinist by the name of David Mason and together they formed a company that produced industrial equipment for printers.

Baldwin's First Stationary Engine
Public Domain


As their company grew and flourished, they realized that they needed a larger power source. In 1826, Matthias invented his first steam engine. It was a stationary model that was able to produce 5 horsepower of energy output. This machine would serve in his shop for over 4 decades. According to his biography in the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, "Baldwin's engine was not only the most powerful of its day but also incorporated mechanical innovation to power rotary motion, which ultimately came to have application in transport, including marine engine design." This invention became the new base for he and his partner's company as the demand for these type of engines skyrocketed. It took less than ten years for them to become one of the top engine manufacturers in the country. Matthias's original engine is now in the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. 

In 1831, Matthias came up with a new idea for his invention. Based on designs first shown in England, Matthias built his first steam locomotive. It was a small demonstration engine that could pull a few cars. This prototype landed him his first commissioned steam locomotive, and he spent a year building it. It was nicknamed Old Ironsides. Unlike other engines during this era, this one was powered by coal, which was more available locally, rather than wood. 

Old Ironsides
By Illustration from History of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, 1831-1920.


Matthias Baldwin was granted a patent in 1836 which was described as the "Art of managing and supplying fire for generating steam in locomotive-engines"

Besides his inventions and business successes, Matthias was a devout Christian and an advocate for racial equality. In 1835, a year before he received his steam locomotive patent, he donated money to open a school for African-American children in Philadelphia, and he continued to pay the teacher's salaries out of his pocket for years. He was also a vocal supporter of abolition, which his competitors exploited against him when competing for business in slave holding states. 

In 1837, Matthias became a member of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention and was a defender of voting rights for black male citizens. 

Matthias Baldwin Statue in Philidelphia
Bruce Andersen, CC BY-SA 2.5

At the time of his death at 70 years of age, Matthias's company had produced some 1500 steam locomotives, and would go on to produce at least 75,000 before the company terminated production in 1956. 

A statue was erected in honor of Matthias Baldwin in 1906, and currently stands in front of Philadelphia City Hall. In May of 2020, it was defaced with the words of "colonizer" and "murderer", which was completely inaccurate given his advocacy for African Americans and their rights. However the action did serve to further the legacy of Matthias Baldwin, since interest in him and his legacy has increased since that time. The statue was cleaned up quickly. 

Matthias Baldwin was also inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.


Two-time winner of the Christian Indie Award for historical fiction, Amber Lemus inspires hearts through enthralling tales She has a passion for travel, history, books and her Savior. This combination results in what her readers call "historical fiction at its finest".

She lives near the Ozarks in her "casita" with her prince charming. Between enjoying life as a boy mom, and spinning stories out of soap bubbles, Amber loves to connect with readers and hang out on Goodreads with other bookish peoples.

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