03/15/06 - railroad trains

In today's excerpt - the first public railway journey and the first railroad accident:

"By 1830 a different type of machine came into being that changed the life and minds of all peoples.  The memory of it is gone, but it was the completest change in human experience since the nomadic tribes became rooted in one spot to grow grain and raise cattle; it was in effect a reversal of that settling down.  Locomotion by the force of steam, the railroad, uprooted mankind and made of it individual nomads again.  This and other cultural consequences were quickly felt from the little stretch of land where the first public railway journey was made.

"That locus classicus was 30 miles between Manchester and Liverpool, and the date was September 15, 1830.  On that inaugural trip the backers of the engineer George Stephenson rode with government officials and their guests, including the Duke of Wellington and William Huskisson, well-known economist and president of the Board of Trade.  Thirty-three cars carried them in eight trains drawn by as many locomotives ... at 20 to 25 miles an hour.

"But about halfway, at a stop to refill the engines with water, the first railroad accident occurred.  Amid exclamations of wonder and delight, the crowd poured out of the leading train on one track, while another passed slowly on the other.  Huskisson, standing at the open door of the Duke of Wellington's carriage and conversing, was confused by the cry of 'Get in! Get in!'  He tried to get around the door,  was knocked down by the engine and he was fatally injured, though conveyed to medical help in 25 minutes.

"The accident is charged with special meaning: from then on, human beings have had to sharpen their reflexes under the threat of moving objects."


Jacques Barzun


From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2000 by Jacques Barzun


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