The Old John Bull: The world’s oldest still functional self propelled vehicle

John Bull

The John Bull is probably the most famous, and definitely the only one still operational, of the early steam locomotives.

The John Bull was first built in England in 1831. It was shipped to the United States and assembled in New Jersey later that same year. It carried a Prince and his wife on its inaugural journey, Napoleon’s nephew Prince Murat who was then visiting New Jersey. It was only a short demonstration ride on unfinished tracks, but Murat’s wife claimed the distinction of being the first female to ride on an American railway, a distinction she reportedly bustled ahead of several New Jersey politicians wives to claim.

Going into full service in 1833 when the Camden-Amboy railway was finished, the new locomotive was named the “Number 1” and also called the “Stevens” after Robert Stevens who founded the railway. For the next 31 years this stout little English locomotive would carry passengers and freight over American rails. It had a bit of a problem with derailing at first since the American iron “T” tracks didn’t offer as smooth of a ride as the early British wooden tracks with a strap of iron attached, but a front wheel carriage was added to solve that problem.

Other locomotives came and went, suffered boiler explosions, and other breakdowns, but the little English built “Number 1” kept right on chugging along. It was from these two facts it earned the name it has become so well known by. Engineers and railroadmen began calling it “the old John Bull” after the British political Cartoon similar to Uncle Sam who personified the British Government in the world press at the time. This was later to be shortened to just “John Bull” as the locomotive built in 1831 went down in history. The last years of the John Bull’s service were as a rail yard switching engine, and then as a stationary power source for a lumber mill. John Bull’s working life ended in 1866, and it was surprisingly put into storage by the railroad rather than dismantled or sold as most of it’s contemporaries were.

Ten years later, in 1876, John Bull began a new career as a display engine and a historical curiosity when it was taken out of storage to be shown at the American Centennial Exposition. Having served until 1866 old John Bull had received a number of upgrades over its working life, a new spark suppressing stack, a cabin to keep the rain off the engineers, and similar modifications. It’s new owners, the Pennsylvania Railroad who had bought out the original Camden-Amboy company thought it should look older, so they removed the cabin, changed the stack to a straight stack, the wheels to spoked wheels, and other things to make it look older It was then displayed at the National Railroad Appliance Exposition in 1883.

The John Bull’s current owner, the Smithsonian Institution bought it in 1884, and put it on museum display. It was still fully operational in 1893, and made a trip to Chicago under it’s own power for the World Columbian Exposition. The then President, Grover Cleveland, was offered a ride to the exposition, as were the Governors of every State the venerable old locomotive passed through.

The Smithsonian still owns the old John Bull, and has displayed it in their museums and at various expositions and World’s Fairs since. It was operated under air power briefly on its hundredth birthday in 1931, and became even more famous by being fired and running under steam in 1981 becoming the oldest self propelled vehicle ever to operate under its own power in its 150th year. The old John Bull is truly a miracle of early steam engineering and a precious piece of American History. The John Bull continues on display at the Smithsonian today.

Update on John Bull

My continuing research on early locomotives has unearthed a few more interesting details about the John Bull.

Although I didn’t include it in my article, I already knew, in passing, that the locomotive that would come to be known as John Bull was built by George and Robert Stephenson’s company in England. Although the company name is usually cited Robert Stephenson and Co., Newcastle-on-Tyne, these are the same men whose company was famous for the “Stephenson Rocket” the winning engine in a competition sponsored by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. They had a second design after the rocket, which they called the planet, tested in 1830. The John Bull however, was an improvement even over the planet type, and possessed all three of what would later prove to be the most important elements in a locomotive’s success and durability. It “was the first engine which had the combination of horizontal cylinders, multitubular boiler, and the blast pipe”.(1) Add a front wheel carriage to prevent derailment, a bell, a headlight, and a cow-catcher, and you have the best of the early locomotives.

The date 1831, and the Stephenson Co. explain a lot about the John Bull’s success, if one has enough information to see it.

(1)quotation from (there are a lot of interesting tidbits on a wide range of early rail topics on this page)