Steam-Powered Railroad Systems Make Possible the Industrial Revolution and Fundamentally Alter the Transportation of Goods and People

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Steam-Powered Railroad Systems Make Possible the Industrial Revolution and Fundamentally Alter the Transportation of Goods and People


The invention of the steam engine and the development of the railroad system were instrumental in creating the Industrial Revolution beginning in the late eighteenth century and continuing into the nineteenth century. Industrialization changed Western society radically, and the railroad was a primary tool of that change.


The Industrial Revolution is defined as the change from the making of products by hand to their manufacture by machinery. Its development in Europe and then the Western Hemisphere between 1780 and 1880 triggered monumental social and political changes that altered Western society. It destroyed traditional ways of life and created new ones. This movement began in England, because England already had overseas markets, because a commercial class already existed, and because it supported a growing population that could supply workers for factories. One of the major inventions that drove this revolution in business and manufacturing was the steam-powered railroad system.

No single person invented the steam engine or the railroad. The first steam engine was built in 60 a.d. by Hero of Alexandria (fl. 60 a.d.), who used steam to make a ball spin around. It was a toy or a curiosity and did no practical work. Sixteen centuries later, in 1698, the first steam engine to do useful work was built in England by Thomas Savery (1650?-1715). Needing a device to drain water from coal and iron mines, he created an engine that condensed steam into a liquid. A partial vacuum and the escape of some of the steam moved a vessel. Valves were opened and closed to suck water up a pipe.

In 1712 Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729) improved this device by building an engine that used steam to move a piston up and down. In 1765 James Watt (1736-1819) used the heat and energy of these steam devices more efficiently by adding a separate cylinder and condenser that used one-fourth of the fuel that previous engines did. He patented his system in 1769 and later added a double action design that made his condensing engines practical to use in other applications, not just pumps.

Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) built the first high-pressure steam engine in 1801. He also invented a carriage that ran on rails. The idea of a car pulled along on rails had existed for centuries. The ancient Greeks had a rail system that helped to get their boats across obstacles. The men who rowed the boat pulled it along grooves in a limestone block. In the middle ages carts on rails were lowered into mines where men worked. There they were filled with ore and pulled to the surface by men, boys, or animals.

In 1803 Trevithick installed his engine on a flat car that could pull other cars. This became the first steam locomotive to run on rails. It was designed to pull loads of iron but was not a success as the loads proved to be too heavy for the rails. Still he had proved that such a device would work.

George Stephenson (1781-1848) created the beginnings of the first railway system in the world in Britain in 1814. His locomotive pulled eight coal cars filled with ore at four miles an hour. It was very slow, but it was a start and the speeds did improve. In the United States horsepowered railways had operated in mines and shipyards for years. In 1815 John Stevens (1749-1838) began building a steam-powered railroad system across New Jersey. He ran out of money and did not finish, but the idea of a railroad system had arrived. By 1820 the first locomotives using steam power and pulling public cars were operating successfully in England. By now some trains were made up of passenger carriages as well as freight cars. In 1825 a United States canal company built fourteen miles of wooden track in Pennsylvania and installed a locomotive on it that had been built in England. This first full-sized locomotive to be used in North America was not a success because it was too slow and the wooden track was too flimsy. The first modern railroad system began operation in England in 1825. It ran from the coal fields at Darlington in the North of England to the town of Stockton on the East Coast, close to ports where the coal could be loaded onto ships.

These inventions were a part of a general movement toward industrialization that occurred first in England, then spread to the rest of Europe and the United States and later to South America. Industrialization was possible because of growth in the population partially caused by improved sanitation and new medical discoveries. Another precipitator was the race between the various European nations to explore and claim far-flung lands. Many such places were considered strategically valuable, but more important was the fact that they had great quantities of the kind of raw materials needed to feed the factories back in Europe or America.


The Industrial Revolution changed the climate of society from a rural, agricultural economy whose goods were made by hand one at a time to an urban economy in which goods were manufactured in factories employing large concentrations of workers. From this came new cities, with their many advantages and numerous drawbacks, as well as far-flung markets. The advancement of knowledge and invention of new devices also led to many technical improvements in production, material, and transportation.

The steam-powered railway brought a revolution in transportation and accelerated the already developing industrialization of the Western world. Railroads answered the need to transport goods quickly to distant markets and to get the goods to ports where they could be taken by ship to even more distant markets overseas; railroads also brought raw materials to ports close to factories. Before the coming of the railroad, it was difficult to move some heavy industrial materials like iron, coal, or stone. The ability of the railroad and the steam boat to transport very heavy loads meant that more goods could be moved and more could be sold.

Operators of factories invested their profits in railroads to enhance their businesses. This was a good investment for the owners. Improvements were always necessary, and the expansion of railroads would serve mines and textile mills and bring more profit. When passenger cars were added, railroads were even more successful. It is clear that steam railroads accelerated industrialization, and industrialization in turn accelerated the building and improvement of railroads. The increased demand for coal and heavy manufactured goods was a guarantee of continued prosperity for the railroads. More factories were also needed to build more locomotives, rails, signals, switches, cars, and so on. More people had to be hired to build new track. Because of the spread of easy travel, it took less time for salesmen to sell goods, and quick sales meant quicker return on money that could then be invested in new lines or the manufacture of additional goods.

A single railroad could cost two million dollars—an enormous sum in the 1800s. Money was needed not only for the 2,500 men to build the structure but also the designers, engines, men who planned routes and decided where to build tunnels, embankments, and bridges. Therefore, construction of a new railroad required more capital than even a wealthy individual could handle alone. This necessitated the creation of corporations and stock companies to pool capital and resources to make the new railroad a reality. This sped up railroad construction but was not always advantageous to the citizens or the towns. The owners of the railroad and its right of way often become too powerful, controlling local government and monopolizing business and land holdings. The owners moved large amounts of manufactured goods and brought competition into an area from outside. For example, a company that produced wine had a general monopoly on the sale of local wine. When a new wine was brought in by the railroad, it changed sales in the area. If the imported wine was better or cheaper, the local wine producer would lose some of his profit to the new business. Railroads thus changed the way goods were advertised, priced, and sold.

The railroad has been called a fundamental innovation in American material life. It was a stimulus for the spread of U.S. population to the West and, in fact, created many small towns. Railroads were an efficient way to move men and supplies during the Civil War (1861-65). In the 1850s Congress began giving federal land grants to builders of new railroads. Northern businessmen had more money to spend on railroads than those in the South and, because the South was mainly agricultural, it lagged far behind the North in railroad mileage. Four times as many miles of railroads crisscrossed the northeastern part of the country as in the Southeast when the Civil War began in 1861. This advantage played an important part in the success of the North in the Civil War.

Long before the war, a rail connection to join the East Coast with the West Coast had been planned, but materials were unavailable during the war. The year after the war ended in 1865, the long-awaited connection was begun. Union Pacific built from the East and the Central Pacific began from the West. When the two railroads joined their tracks in Utah in 1869, the United States had a viable transportation route from the East Coast to the West.

The advent of railroad systems had numerous other effects. For instance, railroads made it possible for farmers to expand away from the banks of rivers and locate anywhere good farmland existed. Railroads also created the idea of small-town America. Furthermore, railroads stimulated the production of goods as well as propelling and spreading the idea of industrialization in the Western world. Railroads, the first major industry in the United States, made possible the growth of industries like coal, steel, flour mills, and commercial farming. They established cities like Chicago and had an impact on urban design. The finest minds and richest entrepreneurs were attracted to the engineering challenges of the railroad and to the legal and financial aspects of its operation.


Further Reading

Dickinson, H. W. A Short History of the Steam Engine. New York: MacMillan, 1939.

James, Peter and Nick Thorpe. Ancient Inventions. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.

Lane, Peter. Industrial Revolution. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1978.

Martin, Albro. Railroads Triumphant. London: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Musson, A. E. and Eric Robinson. Science and Technology in the Industrial Revolution. New York, Gordon & Breech, 1989.

Siegel, Beatrice. The Steam Engine. New York: Walker & Co., 1986.

Taylor, George Rogers. The Transportation Revolution 1815-1860. New York: Armonck, 1968.

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Steam-Powered Railroad Systems Make Possible the Industrial Revolution and Fundamentally Alter the Transportation of Goods and People

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