John Birkinshaw was a 19th-century railway engineer from Bedlington, Northumberland noted for his invention of wrought iron rails in 1820.
Up to this point, rail systems had used either wooden rails, which were totally incapable of supporting steam engines, or cast iron rails which only allowed very low speeds and were brittle and broke easily, making railways economically unviable. Wrought-iron rails could be produced in longer lengths than cast iron and were less liable to crack under the weight of heavy locomotive
John Birkinshaw’s 1820 patent for rolling wrought-iron rails in 15ft lengths was a vital breakthrough for the infant railway system. They were taken up by renowned inventor and engineer George Stephenson in 1821 for the proposed Stockton and Darlington Railway, the world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives that effectively launched the rail era.
George Stephenson was tremendously impressed with Birkinshaw’s work. He wrote in 1821,
“Those rails are so much liked in this neighbourhood that I think in a short time they will do away with the cast iron railways”.
They make a fine line for our engines as there are so few joints compared with the other.”
The Birkinshaw invention was important for another reason. It took the making of iron rails out of the hands of the blacksmith and founder and passed it on to a power driven milling machine which was able to produce them in the vast quantities that would soon be needed.