Steam Engines Are Perpetuating Racism, Apparently

Richard Trevithick didn’t own slaves. He was a barely literate engineer, born toward the end of the 18th century, who grappled with—and ultimately solved—the question of how to improve the steam engine’s size and efficiency. However, he is often canceled.

It National Museum of Wales, which normally displays Trevithick’s 1804 invention, the steam-powered locomotive, has claimed that the innovation “helped drive an imperial British economy that was tied to the slave trade,” reports The TelegraphCraig Simpson. Plaques that will accompany the locomotive model will include additional information about the invention. This includes details about the impact it had on the economy and how it contributed to slavery.

A statement was issued by the museum defending their decision.

“Although there might not be direct links between the Trevithick locomotive and the slave trade, we acknowledge the reality that links to slavery are woven into the warp and weft of Welsh society.

The development of Wales as an industrialized nation was based on trade and colonial exploit.

We will continue our audit of the collection and examine how slave trade influenced the construction of steam and rail infrastructures in Wales.

Museum’s arguments are weak and vague. They claim that this is part of broader decolonisation efforts, which attempts to connect all aspects of history back with racism. However, doing so requires taking a great leap. Because of the lack of coal deposits in Cornwall (where Trevithick was living and working at the time), steam locomotives were necessary. Miners had to save fuel, so they needed more lightweight engines that could transport the materials to their mines. Trevithick utilized the power and steam of high-pressure steam as a way to make engines more efficient, building upon James Watt’s engine that had been in widespread use until the last century.

“It has previously been argued by the National Railway Museum that steam-powered machinery drove sugar mills on plantations and cotton gins in industrial cities, while railways aided colonial expansion,” writes Simpson. Although Trevithick has not been claimed to have received such funding, it is possible that some early railroad financiers made investments in the slave market.

The invention of an invention in another industry that used slave labor does not mean it should be credited to the inventor. Some museums have “decolonization” programs that include adding plaques to indicate guilt and shift the focus from Trevithick’s economic progress.

In poverty, the inventor was also buried. After declaring bankruptcy in 1811 following a string of poor business decisions, he had to be buried unmarked. That he is now receiving posthumous dishonor, for sins of the British empire that he played no personal part in, is more a reflection of the social justice–obsessed times we live in than any fault of his.