Matthias Baldwin was born in 1795. At age sixteen, he apprenticed to a jeweller in Frankfort, Pennsylvania, working his way to master jeweller in 1819. Always an innovator, he entered into a partnership with Peter Mason in 1828 to manufacture printing machines. Frustrated by his inability to buy a steam engine powerful enough for his expanding factory, Baldwin designed and built his own. Thus began the career of Matthias Baldwin as a designer and manufacturer of locomotives. His name would become synonymous with some of the most powerful and reliable steam engines ever to grace the iron road.
This early stationary engine was so successful that other businesses contacted him to order their own machines on his design. Baldwin eventually bought out Mason and converted his factory to the production of engines to drive machinery in the manufacturing plants of the East coast. In 1830, curious about the infant railroad industry, the Philadelphia Museum asked him to build a small train to pull two passenger wagons around their building as a demonstration of steam locomotion. Intrigued by the challenge of applying steam power to movement and inspired by sketches of British locomotives, Baldwin obliged with great success. A year later he was approached by the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Railroad to build a full-size engine to replace the horses drawing carriages on that new line. This locomotive, nicknamed Old Ironsides because of the iron bands around the wooden wheels, ran for the first time on November 24, 1832.
Between 1832 and 1837, Baldwin won contracts for ten more locomotives. He continuously improved the design of his locomotives, replacing the ineffective iron-banded wooden wheels with iron ones, for example. Baldwin’s standing rested on the production of powerful, reliable locomotives, a reputation cemented by the performances of his engines on an early line built by the state of Pennsylvania. When the Lancaster pulled a long train of loaded freight cars up the Philadelphia and Columbia’s longest incline, the company decided to retire its horses in favour of steam-powered locomotives. The new Baldwin Works, opened in 1838, produced some 1,500 locomotives before Matthias Baldwin died. Most of these were for the domestic market, but some were exported to foreign countries. Baldwin became the industry standard, supplying engines equally adept at pulling freight as they were passenger cars.
Baldwin garnered a reputation as a reformer and philanthropist. He spoke in favour of a broad franchise at the Pennsylvania constitutional convention of 1837 and helped open a school for black children. Baldwin became so well known as an abolitionist that railroads in the South refused to purchase his engines. Later in life, he was renowned in Philadelphia for donating money for church building and for his activities on behalf of the American Philosophical Society.