100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview
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Railroad
Year of Invention: 1804

What Is It? A transportation system that carries heavy loads along tracks of
metal rails.

Who Invented It? Richard Trevithick (in Coalbrookdale, Wales)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Railroads were the first efficient transportation system capable of moving large quantities of material (coal, cattle, grain, iron ore, etc.). Using low-friction steel wheels on steel rails, trains could move great weights of cargo using a tiny fraction of the power that would be needed to move that cargo along a road by horse and wagon.

Railroads made it practical to mine vast quantities of raw materials and to transport them to distant markets. They made it possible to concentrate great herds of cattle in the Western United States and gave rise to the era of the cowboy.

The railroads were responsible for creating the four standardized time zones in the contiguous United States (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific). They opened the American West and, for a century, were the most important and advanced form of land transportation.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Bulk goods were moved by horse-drawn wagon to a waterway and then by boat to a destination. Inland waterways used horse-drawn barges because winds could not be depended upon to drive a boat up- or downriver. Cities developed along the major rivers and coasts because those were the only places where masses of goods could be gathered, processed, and distributed. Many commodities were simply not developed because transportation costs were too high.


How Was the Railroad Invented?

Richard Trevithick was an established British inventor who, by 1796, specialized in developing compact high-pressure steam engines. Most of Trevithick’s engines were used to pump water from mines—a constant and serious problem.

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