Social Justice

Steam Engines Are Perpetuating Racism, Apparently

The National Museum of Wales is suggesting that 19th-century innovations that enabled economic development are somehow tainted by slavery.


Richard Trevithick did not 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. He's still getting canceled, though, or at least linked to the slave trade he played no part in.

The 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 Telegraph's Craig Simpson. The plaques that accompany the model of the locomotive will now include information contextualizing the invention, talking about how the economic advancement it brought about also contributed to the slave trade.

The museum issued a statement defending its 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.

Trade and colonial exploitation were embedded in Wales' economy and society and were fundamental to Wales' development as an industrialised nation.

As we continue to audit the collection, we will explore how the slave trade linked and fed into the development of the steam and railway infrastructure in Wales."

The museum's argument is flimsy and vague, part of its self-described "wider decolonising work" that attempts to tie all kinds of parts of history back to racism when doing so involves making an enormous leap. The steam-powered locomotive was born out of necessity; in Cornwall, where Trevithick lived and worked at the time, there were few coal deposits, but lots of ore mining. Mine operators needed to conserve fuel and needed lightweight, more efficient engines to better transport materials to mining sites. Trevithick made use of the power of high-pressure steam to improve engines, building on James Watt's engine, which had been predominantly in use up until the end of the 18th 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. "It has also been argued that many early financiers of the rail network had investments in the slave trade, although it is not claimed that Trevithick had any such backing."

Just because an invention was used in other industries that utilized slave labor doesn't mean the inventor himself ought to have his reputation stained. It's unclear who is served by some of these "decolonisation" efforts at museums, which involve adding plaques that imply tenuous guilt by association and shifting focus away from the economic development made possible by Trevithick's locomotive.

The inventor himself died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave, having declared bankruptcy in 1811 after a series of bad business decisions. 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.