the invention of the railroad -- 2/3/17

Today's selection -- from Jay Cooke's Gamble by M. John Lubetkin. Judging by its impact on the world's economic growth, no invention has had a greater impact on civilization than the railroad and its companion invention, the telegraph:

"Experiments began [around 1800] with steam-powered engines that could move on ... tracks. George Stephenson and his son built such an engine in Great Britain; on or about September 27, 1825, the Locomotion carried 600 people 12 miles. For his first run, Stephenson placed modified stageĀ­coaches to ride on wooden rails, spaced to meet the coaches' wheels. The train had no brakes, nor was it able to go up an incline or even make wide curves. A friend wrote: 'Nothing can do more harm to the adoption of railroads, than the promulgation of such nonsense that we shall see locomotive engines traveling at a rate of 12, 16, 18, and 20 miles per hour.' Four years later Stephenson's Rocket carried passengers at 30 miles an hour.

"In America John Stevens put a steam engine on a platform in 1825, carrying a half-dozen people on a small circular track. In 1830 the Baltimore & Ohio railed road began horse-drawn service from Baltimore to Ellicott's Mills. On September 18 Peter Cooper, with 36 people aboard his Tom Thumb, made the run in an hour. On the return trip, Cooper raced a man in a carriage and was well ahead until a crack developed in his engine. That December, 140 guests rode four miles on The Best Friend of Charleston, just outside Charleston, South Carolina. The first regularly scheduled train, the Mohawk & Hudson's DeWitt Clinton, ran 17 miles from Albany to Schenectady on August 9, 1831. The same trip via the Erie Canal and the Hudson River was 41 miles long; boats passed through more than two dozen locks for the 240-foot drop between the two cities. In addition to the time difference, canals froze in winter. Entrepreneurs and investors quickly threw their support behind railroads, while those who had invested in or were employed by canals fought back with repressive legislation, sabotage, and occasional murder.

Replica of the Rocket

"Nevertheless, American artisans were soon designing, constructing, and operating railroads, discovering as they went novel concepts such as centrifugal force. They thought, fiddled, and filed patents so that trains ran and stopped with a modest degree of regularity. Safety requirements brought dramatic change. Wood track, for example, gave way to wood with an iron overlay, 'strap iron.' But it often broke; 'When that happened it became a "snake," in railroad lingo, knifing its way through car floors and impaling hapless passengers.' Track quickly became all-iron, gradually increasing in weight per yard because of heavier trains. Virtually every piece of railroad construction, equipment, signaling, and operations had to be invented or modified from stagecoaches and steam ship engines. ...

"Travel from Lancaster to Philadelphia via horse car rail in 1833 took 12 hours; but steam engines proved faster and more efficient and by 1836 were replacing horses for longer trips. In 1838, despite ice, snow, and having to take two ferries, [Philip] Hone traveled from Philadelphia to Baltimore in seven hours, commenting on 'what a contrast this is to the old winter traveling between the two cities on a detestable road and a dangerous ferry, and two days and a night consumed.'

"The concept of railed travel spread rapidly. In 1839 daily service between Boston and Springfield was inaugurated. A one-way 90-mile trip in the wooden, double-decked passenger train took 12 hours; but just 32 years later express trains traveled twice the distance (Boston to Albany) in half the time. In the 1830s regional promoters like [Philip] Hone, Eleutheros Cooke, and hundreds of others developed routes, raised money, and built roads. Despite swindles and failures, the successes allowed dramatic growth to continue.

"Complementing and greatly contributing to the leap in railroad construction in the 1850s was the perfection of the telegraph, first demonstrated in 1844. The telegraph ushered in a new era. Most American railroad construction was single track, so trains had to wait at sidings to meet or be passed by other trains. With telegraph operators sending signals from stations, trains could increase their average speed, and more trains could use the same track."


M. John Lubetkin


Jay Cooke's Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873


University of Oklahoma Press


Copyright 2006 by the University of Oklahoma Press


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