The Joy of Museums

Finding Beauty & Meaning in Museums

John Bull Locomotive

John Bull NMAH side

John Bull is a railroad steam locomotive that operated in the United States, it was built by Robert Stephenson and Company in Britain. Purchased and operated by the first railroad in New Jersey, which gave this locomotive the number 1 and its first name, “Stevens” after the president of Railroad at the time. It operated from 1833 until 1866, and through regular use of the engine, the crews began calling it the old John Bull, a reference to the cartoon personification of England, John Bull.

After being removed from service, it was placed in storage except for the occasional use in public displays, and it was fired up for the Centennial Exposition in 1876 and again for another exhibition in 1883. In 1884 the locomotive was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution as the museum’s first major industrial exhibit. After being on static display for over 40 years, the museum commemorated the locomotive’s 150th birthday in 1981 by firing it up, making it the world’s oldest surviving operable steam locomotive.


Essential Facts:

  • Title:                John Bull
  • Type:                Railroad steam locomotive
  • Builder:            Robert Stephenson and Company
  • Build:               1831
  • Gauge :            4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm)
  • Length:            14 ft 9 in (4.50 m) — frame
  • Width:              6 ft 3 in (1.91 m) — frame
  • Loco weight:   10 ton
  • Retired:            1866
  • Museum:          National Museum of American History


“Isn’t it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so we could discover them!” Orville Wright



Photo Credit: By Leon Reed from Falls Church, VA, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons