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

By Anthony J. Bianculli | Go to book overview
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Introduction to Motive Power

The development and application of the steam engine was probably the most important single element that characterized and contributed to the success of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century. It enabled astounding gains in production output, and, applied to water transportation, freed sailors from the vagaries of natural forces—current and wind—that acted upon their boats and ships. Before the steam engine, land transportation was restricted to human-or animal-power for propulsion, with consequent limitations in load, speed, and endurance. One hundred miles was considered a respectable distance to travel in one day although on rare occasions, such as Napoleon's return trip from Moscow to Paris (a distance of one thousand miles) twice that speed was achieved.1 The steam engine extended those limits through the development of locomotives that steadily increased in power.

Steam locomotion on land began with vehicles that operated on public roads rather than rails. In 1769, Nicholas Cugnot, a French artillery officer, developed a bulky, workable, though unmanageable “steam wagon” intended to move cannons from place to place. It used an ingenious ratchet-like mechanism for turning the wheels, but unfortunately, its boiler was undersized and the machine was almost impossible to control because of the vast weight bearing on the single directional wheel. This failing led to an accident where the vehicle crashed into and damaged a stone wall as well as itself, a circumstance for which Cugnot was fined. Later, Napoleon Bonaparte was made a member of a committee to examine the machine and report on its practicability, but he withdrew from the group to depart for Egypt before it made a favorable report.2

Over the next few decades, other inventors followed Cugnot's lead and produced steam-powered vehicles that ran on land. One of these, the Oruktor Amphibolis (literally, Amphibious Digger but commonly referred to as Evans's Scow) was made by Oliver Evans in 1804. It was a twentyone-ton dredge with a scow-like hull, a boat with a blunt, sloping bow and stern that, through a rope-belt drive to its wheels, was able to negotiate the Philadelphia streets from Evans's shop to the Schuylkill River where, unfortunately, it performed poorly and, allegedly, sank. Over part of its route, it was supported on “a temporary Railway “the first ever attempted in America” to prevent the wheels sinking into the ruts.”3

When Evans's earlier plans for “a steam carriage” were shown to Benjamin Latrobe (the elder), they were dismissed as absurd and Evans “was said to be seized with the 'steam mania.'Although Evans's Oruktor Amphibolis is most commonly associated with his name, a more significant invention, a high pressure steam engine utilizing steam at greater than one hundred pounds per square inch, is attributable to him. Earlier though, at the end of the eighteenth century, Richard Trevithick, a mining official in England, made a significant contribution to steam engine development by building a practical highpressure engine. Unlike James Watt's large, lowpressure steam engines, the Trevithick product was compact and lighter, qualities that made it suitable for mobile use. Because Watt held a nearmonopoly on patents relating to steam engines, it was not until 1802, after basic Watt patents expired, that Trevithick was able to adapt his engine for a practical application, a steam carriage. This apparatus was not well accepted and Trevithick turned his attention to building a machine that would run on rails. In 1804, his (railroad) locomotive was demonstrated successfully on a tramway in Wales, where it hauled ten long tons of


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