This Railway Engineer Was a Lifelong Champion of Research, Experiment, and Development

April 5, 1941

Nigel Gresley, a railway engineer who made major contributions to the development of high-powered steam locomotives, died at his home in Hertford, England, at the age of 64. He was born in 1876 in Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh and raised in the English village and civil parish of Netherseal. After attending the boarding-and-day school Marlborough College, Gresley served as an apprentice with the London and North Western Railway at its works (facility) in the town and civil parish of Crewe. He subsequently studied engineering with renowned mechanical engineer John Aspinall at the works of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (L&YR) in the town and civil parish of Horwich.

Gresley remained with the L&YR for several years, becoming outdoor assistant of its carriage and wagon department in 1901. He was appointed assistant works manager at an L&YR depot in Manchester in 1902 and promoted to works manager there the following year. In 1904, he rose even further in the ranks at the L&YR when he became assistant superintendent of its carriage and wagon department.

The following year, Gresley left the L&YR for employment at the Great Northern Railway (GNR) as its carriage and wagon superintendent. He was appointed chief mechanical engineer (CME) of the GNR in 1911. In 1923, the GNR became part of the newly formed London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). Gresley was appointed CME of LNER, and he served in this role until his death.

The Flying Scotsman

During his long tenure as CME of LNER, Gresley vigorously pursued ambitious and unprecedented goals. He designed steam locomotives that achieved worldwide fame for both their aesthetic appeal and record-breaking speeds. One of Gresley’s creations, Flying Scotsman, made headlines in 1934 when it became the first steam locomotive to be officially certified as attaining a speed of 100 miles (160.9 kilometers) per hour. In 1935, the LNER train Silver Jubilee – designed by Gresley to help commemorate the 25th anniversary of the ascent of King George V to the British throne – traveled even faster than Flying Scotsman and ultimately reached a speed of 112 miles (180.3 kilometers) per hour.

Three years later, another one of Gresley’s steam locomotives established yet another speed record. This particular locomotive, known as Mallard, reached a top speed of 126 miles (202.8 kilometers) per hour – a record that remains unbroken today. The unique name for that locomotive, incidentally, is understandable in light of Gresley’s strong interest in ducks. (On the long-running TV series “NCIS,” a small-scale model of the locomotive Mallard can be seen every so often in the work area of the character Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard.)

Gresley was responsible for a number of other railroad innovations. These include his development of an improved locomotive valve gear for three-cylinder engines. Gresley also helped make possible the use of electricity for cooking on British trains. In 1936, Gresley was made a knight by King Edward VIII (who had succeeded his father George V to the throne earlier that year).

Gresley has continued to be honored in the decades since his death. In 2001, for example, a memorial plaque to his achievements was unveiled at Edinburgh Waverley railway station in the city where he was born. “He always sought improved performance and efficiency in locomotives and coaches,” reads the plaque. “He was a firm believer in research, experiment, and development to establish the best practice in engineering. He was an inspiration to generations of engineers who admire fine engineering and beauty of line.”

For more information on Nigel Gresley, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigel_Gresley and http://www.flyingscotsman.org.uk/nigel-gresley/.

(Photo credit: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24815411.)

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