Trains and Technology: The American Railroad in the Nineteenth Century - Vol. 1

By Anthony J. Bianculli | Go to book overview

Preface: Comments from the Cab

My interest in railroads has been lifelong. As a railroad buff, I soon discovered that many early railroad features were not well explained in the literature. In other cases, misinformation abounded, particularly in popular literature and, surprisingly, in the releases provided by early railroad publicists. As I undertook research to understand various railroad operating details, I realized that others might profit from the results of that research. The consequence was the preparation of this book. Once involved in the business of writing, I concluded that a dry recitation of technical details could be unappealing so I chose to meld interesting anecdotal information, most undoubtedly true but some perhaps of dubious veracity (and so identified), into the text. I believe that this book provides an easily understood presentation and clarification of very technical subjects as well as an enjoyable read.

This work presents a view of the history of American railroads in the nineteenth century from a somewhat different perspective. The maturation of the railroad is traced through an exposition of the railroad technology that was developed and applied during the period. Throughout the nineteenth century, a symbiotic relationship existed between railroading and technology—each dependent upon the state and progress of the other to a large degree. A great deal of new technology was created for the railroad, and the railroad, in turn, applied new technology as it became available.

A recurring theme throughout the book is the undercapitalization of most American railroads. The need to “make do” with a minimum of funding made most railroad managers cautious and conservative, reluctant to “waste” money on untried, untested concepts. Railroad management of the nineteenth century (and, for that matter, the twentieth century) was also mindful of the enormous capital plant that it managed. Innovation was evolutionary, not revolutionary. It would not do to obsolete millions of dollars worth of rolling stock or other capital equipment before it had provided a reasonable return. As a result, although the railroads were probably the driving force for much of the newly created technology of the nineteenth century, the truly original, watershed inventions of the period (for instance the telegraph and its more complicated sister, the telephone, which brought instantaneous communication; electricity generation and distribution, which enabled universal, safe, and better lighting, and the application of motor-driven machinery and appliances; and the internal combustion engine, which allowed immediate vehicle start-up and personal transportation) did not originate with them. Even though the railroads were quick to put many of the radically new inventions to use, the story of the evolution of the railroad from its crude beginnings to a complex, sophisticated system is really defined by the workaday technology that was developed to fill, or was adapted to, specific railroad needs. The drawings, illustrations, and accompanying text in this book present that story by documenting some of the ingenious solutions—and a few not-so-great ideas—applied by creative early American railroad designers.

Although a wealth of information has been published about the beginnings of railroading in the United States, almost all of that material is textual. Where illustrations were employed, they seldom described accurately the early railroad equipment or structures. Technical drawings, usually contemporary to the times, were few and often inaccurate, both in scale and form, and lacked important, essential detail. Furthermore, or more likely as a consequence, descriptions accompanying such drawings rarely disclosed adequate information for true understanding or recreation of the elements depicted. Consequently, I offer the following caveat. Every effort was made to provide accurate drawings, but they

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