(WHTM) In 1831 the newly formed Camden and Amboy Railroad of New Jersey needed a locomotive. They decided to order one from Robert Stephenson and Company in Newcastle, England, the first business founded specifically to build railway engines. The company shipped the engine to America disassembled, in crates – and without diagrams or instructions on how to put it together.

Somehow C&A engineer Isaac Dripps figured out which parts went where, and on September 15, 1831, the new locomotive went on its first test run. A couple of years later, with the railroad actually completed, it went into regular service. It would remain in use for the next 35 years.

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Railroad crews started calling it the Old John Bull, and the name stuck. Over the years the engine underwent modifications, most notably a leading truck in the front to help it steer around curves, and a cowcatcher in front of that.

After it was retired in 1866, the Pennsylvania Railroad acquired it. They displayed it at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and again at the 1883 National Railway Appliance Exhibition in Chicago. In 1885 the John Bull found a new home at the Smithsonian Institution. It made a few more trips, most notably to Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, but the last time it operated under steam was in 1927, and its final trip was to the New York Worlds Fair in 1939. It then remained on static display at the Smithsonian .

Until 1981.

With the 150th anniversary of the John Bull at hand, a special celebration seemed in order. Careful inspection showed that all the running gear was in good order, and a professional steam boiler inspection company determined it could safely be run at a slightly reduced pressure.

So on September 15, 1981, 150 years after its first run, the locomotive John Bull steamed several miles along a track close to the Potomac River, becoming the oldest operating steam engine and self-propelled vehicle in the world.

Footnote: In 1940 the Altoona Works of the Pennsylvania Railroad built a working replica of the John Bull, which was operated at the New York World’s Fair. The replica can now be seen at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg.

To see the Smithsonian’s video of the John Bull’s 1981 run, click here.