The Roots of Progress

Trains and steamboats

May 25, 2017

Returning to How the Industrial Revolution Changed the World, I recently read a chapter on early industrial transportation: steamboats and trains.

There is a story here like the story of the steam engine. Before industrial transportation, people had to use what was available—what nature gave them. And of the options nature gave them, the most convenient was travel by water.

Ground is inconsistent. It has steep hills, even mountains and valleys. It can be rock, gravel, or sand; hard or soft; dry or swampy. And worst of all, it has friction.

Water is flat and level. It’s pretty much the same anywhere. And you can glide right over it, even with an enormous amount of cargo, as long as you can build a big enough boat to carry the load and still float. Better still, rivers have a consistent, predictable direction. As long as the river is going where you want to go, it’s like a natural moving walkway: just get on it and go.

On land, you (or your animals) have to walk, or if you want to roll on wheels, you need to massive infrastructure investments to pave roads or lay track.

So most transportation, especially for commerce, was by water, and that the biggest cities were ports on the coast or on major rivers. Shipping is still, today, the cheapest way to transport cargo.

However, like everything else nature gives us, travel by water has its inconveniences. At sea, sailors rely on the wind. Rivers have a consistent current, but they go where they want, not where people necessarily want to travel. Not all parts of them are navigable: some may be too narrow, too shallow, or too rocky, not to mention the possibility of waterfalls. And rivers change with the seasons and the weather: sometimes flooding, sometimes drying up, sometimes freezing (which can happen to lakes as well).

One early step in conquering travel was the digging of canals. I always thought of canals as bridging two bodies of water, like at Panama or Suez. But apparently they can also be used to straighten rivers or get around unnavigable parts of them. I’ve only caught hints of this in my reading so far.

The Industrial Revolution brought steamboats—which let you travel without wind, or upriver—and later, trains. In order to get from the stationary steam engines of Newcomen and Watt, to steam-powered vehicles, I gather, the engines had to be made smaller/lighter. I think this was accomplished by creating high-pressure engines, which were more compact yet more dangerous. (The internal combustion engine, I think, can be made smaller and lighter still, which is why the automobile wasn’t invented in the age of steam.) Crump is frustratingly light on details; I’ll have to research more elsewhere.

Why do trains trun on tracks, and pull cars of cargo? They were an evolutionary development from what already existed at coal mines. Mines ran track from the mouth of the mine down to the river, and cars would be filled with coal and then coasted downhill or pulled by horses. Trains were just a matter of hooking a steam engine to this existing technology.