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

By Anthony J. Bianculli | Go to book overview

3
Motive Power Adolescence, 1850–1875

I like to see it lap the Miles,
And lick the Valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at Tanks;
And then, prodigious, step

Around a Pile of Mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In Shanties by the side of Roads;
And then a Quarry pare …

—Emily Dickinson

Dickinson's poem continued the iron horse metaphor that had begun years earlier. At midcentury, writers described the Iron Horse that “tramples down the hills, outruns the laggard winds, “and” leaps over the rivers.” These authors were, for the most part, seeking to picture the machine in common, easily understood terms, likening the locomotive to man's valued servant, the horse. Walt Whitman saw a “black cylindrical body, golden and silvery steel…. Fierce throated beauty,” another, “an iron-ribbed animal.” and Elihu Burritt loved “to see one of those huge creatures, with sinews of brass and muscles of iron, strut forth from his stable and salute the train of cars with a dozen sonorous puffs from his iron nostrils, then fall back gently into his harness.”1 But, often, they painted a frightening picture of wild, uncontrolled beasts, “mad dragons” and “thirsty monsters,” according to Charles Dickens. Thoreau drew a similar word picture when he heard “the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils.”2 Another individual, upon seeing his first locomotive, exclaimed that it was “pandemonium in harness.” In more pragmatic, less lyrical veins, the American Railroad Journal characterizated “The Locomotive Engine … “as” … the most wonderful of created things” and, similarly, Scientific American acclaimed “The locomotive … “as” … the most perfect of machines, … nearer to the spiritual and physical combination of the human machine, than any other.”3

By midcentury, locomotives had reached a state of development where, with a few exceptions, change was evolutionary, not revolutionary. This is not unlike the history of the development of automobiles and aircraft in the twentieth century. At first, inventors experiment with many different and unusual designs, some meritorious, some crackpot, until some general arrangement of components proves to be more satisfactory than others. From that point, progress is measured in smaller, evolutionary steps, where improvements are made to machine and its appliances. The same was true of locomotive design in 1850. Horizontal, multitubular boilers were universal and outside-connected, horizontal cylinders were becoming the norm. The 4–4–0, American-type locomotive had demonstrated its versatility as either a freight or passenger engine. By and large, more power was obtained by scaling the boiler and cylinder to larger size and/or by increasing the boiler pressure. Copper and brass fittings and components began to be steadily displaced by. the harder and cheaper ferrous metals. Most important to evolutionary development, perhaps, was the innate conservatism of

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 7
  • Preface: Comments from the Cab 9
  • Acknowledgements 13
  • Introduction 15
  • Locomotives 25
  • General Description of the American Steam Locomotive 27
  • 1: Introduction to Motive Power 33
  • 2: Motive Power Infancy, 1830–1850 38
  • 3: Motive Power Adolescence, 1850–1875 104
  • 4: Motive Power Maturity, 1875–1900 135
  • 5: Locomotive Appliances and Appurtenances 205
  • Notes 217
  • Bibliography 230
  • Index 237
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