Many conveniences we enjoy today can trace their roots to technologies developed during the Industrial Revolution. This period of rapid industrialisation began in Great Britain, where many innovations were pioneered such as new construction materials, manufacturing methods, and lifestyle improvements.
Much of the world’s oldest industrial heritage is located in the UK and so we have curated a list highlighting some of it. We aim to grow this list over time. Is there something we should include in this list? Get in touch and let us know.
World’s first practical steam engine
The world’s first practical steam engine is the Newcomen Atmospheric Engine, which was first used in 1712 to pump water out of a mineshaft at the Coneygree Coal Works near Dudley Castle. It takes the title of the first practical steam engine because earlier devices were created as novelties or to demonstrate the principle of steam power.
Newcomen engines would dominate the market until James Watt improved its fuel efficiency, which gave birth to the Boulton & Watt steam engines in 1776. A replica of a Newcomen Engine was constructed on the grounds of the Black Country Living Museum, 1.5 km from where the first engine was located and is brought into steam as part of the museum’s demonstrations.
World’s oldest working steam engine and oldest working engine
The Smethwick Engine is the world’s oldest working steam engine and oldest working engine. It was brought into service in 1779 pumping water to the top of the Smethwick Locks summit. After 113 years of service, it was removed for preservation and is now on display at Thinktank Birmingham Science Museum where it is brought into steam as part of the museum’s demonstrations.
World’s oldest surviving single-arch railway bridge
The Causey Arch is the world’s oldest surviving single-arch railway bridge. It was completed in 1726 and is 105 ft in length. It once carried horse-drawn wagons on a wooden railway from local collieries to the River Tyne near Stanley in County Durham. The wagonway was diverted and the bridge then carried a footpath. It is publicly accessible and offers wonderful views of the Causey Burn below.
World’s oldest working railway bridge
The Skerne Bridge is the world’s oldest working railway bridge. Completed in 1825, it carries the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives, which included George Stephenson’s Locomotion No. 1. The bridge was so iconic, it featured on the share certificates of the original railway company and even appeared on the UK’s £5 note. Today, the bridge still carries a working railway, which is now known as the Tees Valley Line. You can view the bridge from the River Skerne below.
World’s oldest surviving iron railway bridge
Pont-y-Cafnau is the world’s oldest surviving iron railway bridge. It was designed by George Watkin and completed in 1793 to carry a tramway from a limestone quarry to the Cyfarthfa Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil. Many incorrectly regard the Gaunless Bridge as the world’s oldest iron railway bridge. Although the Pont-y-Cafnau carried a tramway, it still used iron rails to transport freight and is technically a railway. One could say the Gaunless Bridge was the first iron railway bridge that carried a steam locomotive. Unfortunately, the bridge is closed off for repairs.
World’s oldest surviving railway viaduct
Laigh Milton Viaduct is the world’s oldest surviving railway viaduct. Located near Gatehead in Scotland, it was opened in 1812 for the Kilmarnock and Troon Railway, a horse-drawn plateway, which primarily carried coal. The viaduct was closed in 1846 and lay unused until it was restored and re-opened in 1996 to pedestrians and cyclists.
World’s oldest working railway viaduct
The Bassaleg Viaduct is the world’s oldest working railway viaduct. It was designed by George Overton and completed in 1826 to carry the Rumney Railway, a horse-drawn plateway connecting ironworks with tramroads leading to Newport Docks. The line was converted to standard gauge in the 1860s for steam locomotives and the viaduct still carries freight traffic to this day from a nearby quarry.
Many incorrectly regard the Sankey Viaduct as the world’s oldest working railway viaduct. The Sankey Viaduct is the oldest that carries passengers; however, Bassaleg, although it only carries freight, was completed four years earlier, and is the world’s oldest overall.
World’s first railway to run a steam locomotive
The Merthyr Tramroad was the world’s first railway that ran a steam locomotive. The tramroad was opened in 1802 originally as a horse-drawn plateway to carry produced iron and raw materials for three of the four major ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil.
A visit from the renowned engineer Richard Trevithick to install a stationary high-pressure steam engine at the Pen-y-Darren ironworks resulted in his new patent being applied to move carriages on the plateway. And so, the Pen-y-Darren locomotive was built and the first-ever journey on rails hauled by a steam locomotive became history.
Much of the original tramway was incorporated into the Trevithick Trail, a walking and cycling route, where you can see remains of the line such as the Trevithick Tunnel, one of the earliest railway tunnels.
World’s oldest continually working railway
The Middleton Railway is the world’s oldest continually working railway. The line was originally opened in 1758 as a wagonway to carry coal from Middleton to Leeds via horse-drawn wagons. The line is notable as the first to be secured with an Act of Parliament that was titled for the building of a railway.
The line eventually ran early steam locomotives, most notably the Salamanca in 1812, which used a rack and pinion system to provide sufficient adhesion and prevent the cast iron rails from breaking under the weight of the engine. When coal traffic ceased in 1960, the railway became a heritage line, and it still runs heritage services to this day.
World’s oldest surviving steam locomotive
The Puffing Billy is the world’s oldest surviving locomotive. It was completed in 1814 to replace horses on a wagonway at Wylam Colliery near the Tyne. Unlike previous locomotives that used a rack and pinion system, the Puffing Billy rolled on the rails under its own friction. It remained in service until 1862 before being sold to the precursor to the London Science Museum, where it remains on display.
World’s oldest surviving navigable cast iron aqueduct
The Longdon-on-Tern Aqueduct is the world’s oldest surviving navigable cast iron aqueduct. Completed in 1796 by Thomas Telford, it incorporates part of the original stone aqueduct that washed away during a catastrophic flood. It was constructed to carry the Shrewsbury Canal over the River Tern. The canal closed in 1944 and eventually was demolished; however, the aqueduct survived and offers visitors a unique experience because you can walk in the cast iron trough.
Incidentally, this aqueduct is also the world’s second cast iron aqueduct, opening one month after the Holmes Aqueduct in Derby, which was demolished in 1970 leaving no trace.
World’s oldest working navigable cast iron aqueduct
The Stalybridge Aqueduct is the world’s oldest working navigable cast iron aqueduct. It was completed in 1800 by Benjamin Outram, who also designed the first cast iron aqueduct in the world. The Stalybridge Aqueduct, also called the Tame Aqueduct, carries the Huddersfield Narrow Canal over the River Tame.
World’s first and only swing aqueduct
The Barton Swing Aqueduct is the world’s first and only swing aqueduct. It was opened in 1894 and designed by Edward Leader Williams. The swing aqueduct carries the Bridgewater Canal over the Manchester Ship Canal.
The Barton Aqueduct, which previously occupied the site, was a traditional arched structure and would have prevented larger vessels from passing through the new ship canal. It was replaced with the swing aqueduct, which continues to operate to this day. Incidentally, the original Barton Aqueduct, constructed by James Brindley in 1761, was the first navigable aqueduct in the UK.
World’s oldest working cast iron bridge
The eponymous Iron Bridge is the world’s oldest working cast iron bridge. Completed in 1779 by Abraham Darby III, the bridge is a legacy of his grandfather Abraham Darby I, an early pioneer of iron production using coke. It is incorrectly billed as the world’s first iron bridge; however, earlier records of iron bridges (none survived) debunk this claim. Nonetheless, the Iron Bridge is an impressive structure that continues to function as a crossing for pedestrians and cyclists to this day.
World’s oldest working chain suspension bridge
The Union Chain Bridge is the world’s oldest working chain suspension bridge. It was designed by Captain Samuel Brown and completed in 1820. The bridge links Scotland and England over the River Tweed and it still serves as a crossing for vehicles to this day.
Some sources incorrectly state the Menai Suspension Bridge is the oldest working example. Although work started on the Menai Bridge earlier, the Union Chain Bridge was completed first. It is currently closed for repairs.
World’s oldest surviving cast iron aqueduct
Pont-y-Cafnau is the world’s oldest surviving cast iron aqueduct. Located in Merthyr Tydfil, the aqueduct supplied the neighbouring Cyfarthfa Ironworks with water via two leats, one elevated in the air, and the other through a trough underneath the bridge decking. The elevated aqueduct is long gone; however, its trough below deck survives and thus claims this record. The structure is currently closed for repairs.
World’s oldest gasworks remains
Dolphinholme Worsted Mill is home to the world’s oldest gasworks remains. Located in Lancashire, the mill was one of the first to be lit by gas as an experiment in 1811 by Samuel Clegg. Gas lighting saved mill owners the expense of up to 1,500 candles per night. The experiment was successful, and Clegg went on to construct the world’s first public gasworks in Westminster in 1813.
World’s first domestic property that was powered by hydroelectricity
Cragside was the world’s first domestic property that was powered by hydroelectricity. Located in Northumberland, it was the home of inventor William Armstrong, an arms manufacturer, and a pioneer of modern home gadgetry. In 1878, Armstrong installed a Siemens dynamo connected to a Vortex turbine, which was powered by water falling from lakes in the hills above the house. This system powered an Arc Lamp, which was then replaced in 1880 by an incandescent light bulb by Joseph Swan. Cragside is now owned by the National Trust and open to visitors.
World’s first domestic property that was lit by the incandescent electric light bulb
Underhill in Gateshead is the world’s first domestic property that was lit by the incandescent electric light bulb. It was the home of Joseph Swan, inventor of the bulb, which he had been developing for some thirty years. By 1880, Swan had patented his creation and began installing light bulbs starting with his own home. Unfortunately, Underhill is not open to the public; however, its legacy is marked by a blue plaque.