Tag Archives: railroad

Oh, yeah, we got your steampunk

The steam engine and railroad extended civilization’s reach. There was hardly a city on Earth you couldn’t get to by railroad.

It seems almost selfish and ungrateful to point this out, but…once you get used to the idea of traveling wherever you want, you start to think about traveling whenever you want. How much fun would it be to travel where the rails don’t go—and not worry about a train schedule?

Of course people still traveled on horseback or by horse-and-buggy. Horses need food and water, though, and they poop (that made a town’s streets pretty unsanitary). If you travel long distances, you’ll want to replace your horse at intervals so you don’t run him to death. There are drawbacks to long-distance horse travel.

So you think, why not use steam to power a personal car—like a small locomotive? There were disadvantages: the boiler needs time to heat up before you can use it. An engine strong enough to propel a car has to be big. Fuel (coal or wood) takes up space. You have to keep feeding the fire. You need gallons and gallons of water. Many challenges to overcome!

Nevertheless, there were steam-driven road-machines, and they were magnificent.

The Stanley Steamer

Jay Leno takes us for a ride in his White steam car—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBU8IPyUyTk
And check out this baby—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9FuCDRRb7k
Face it, the guy really knows his steam—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Me8b0ed59s
I’ve been to the Pioneer Steam and Gas Engine Society shows in Western Pennsylvania and they are a blast! Maybe next year we’ll get our sanity back—http://pioneersteamandgas.com/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steam_car
Here’s everything you need to know about how a Stanley steam carriage works—http://www.stanleymotorcarriage.com/Parts/howitworks.htm
I must admit, I can’t figure out why there isn’t a smokestack. I know the steam car is using liquid fuel instead of wood or coal. Is it because the whole design is contained and under pressure? I guess that’s it but I would expect there to be some exhaust.
This article makes the case for stream-driven cars—https://www.carkeys.co.uk/news/why-does-nobody-make-a-steam-powered-car

Big old machines

Railroads go everywhere

Soon railways stretched across Great Britain, Europe, the Americas, India, Russia, Africa, Australia—the whole world. Travel became safe and affordable. You didn’t have to be an explorer or spice trader or soldier to wander to a new country. You could travel as a ‘tourist,’ just for fun. Railway lines from neighboring countries linked up with each other. Land-locked areas were connected with port cities. And the father of all science-fiction writers asked himself, “With all these improvements in travel, exactly how long would it take for someone to circle the globe?”—but in French.

History of the railroad in Europe—https://europeanrailroads.blogs.wm.edu/briefhistory-of-railroads-in-europe/

And Canada—https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/railway-history

Here is the fascinating story of railroads in India. Their railway system began in the days of the British Empire (the Raj). The railroad changed the country and saved many lives in areas struck by famine and drought. Food and water could be brought quickly to remote parts of India.

Timeline: 165 years of history on Indian Railways

History of the railroad in Russia—https://www.railstaff.co.uk/2015/09/25/history-of-russian-railways-part-1-the-tsars/
George Whistler, the American engineer brought in as consultant to the Tsar’s project, was James’ dad (James the guy who famously painted his mother. That James Whistler).

In both Africa—https://utahrails.net/articles/central-africa-railroads.php
and Australia—https://www.infrastructure.gov.au/rail/history.aspx
there was no unified vision of a continent-wide rail system. Different regions or countries laid track but each chose its own gauge (so some tracks were wide, some narrow) which resulted in regrettable setbacks. The railroads couldn’t connect to each other. Many lines had to be rebuilt. Some locomotives and cars were unusable.

Latin America—http://logisticsportal.iadb.org/node/4213?language=en
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Trochita
Paul Theroux wrote a travelogue, The Old Patagonian Express, about his journey from a Boston suburb to the south of South America, all by rail.  He wrote a similar travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar, taking a rail trip from London to Tokyo (he rode the Trans-Siberian Railway—all the cars piped in loud, over-produced Christmas music ha ha—just kidding). I read these 2 books decades ago, and dimly remember some adult content so I shouldn’t recommend them to you guys until you graduate from high school. On the other hand…

…I can recommend Jules Verne. If you haven’t seen the movie Around The World in Eighty Days (the good one—Michael Todd directing David Niven and practically every character actor or celebrity of the day), read the book first. It’s the most fun of Jules Verne’s work. Both book and movie (yes, there are cringey moments from today’s viewpoint) are highly recommended by me.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days
https://www.imdb.com/video/vi2559950361?playlistId=tt0048960&ref_=tt_ov_vi

https://www.biography.com/writer/jules-verne

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jules-Verne

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Simpler time

Loyal readers of this blog know that as you travel east or west, local time is determined by how far you are from the Prime Meridian. Each degree of longitude means 4 minutes of time difference. Wherever you happened to live in the United States in the 1800s, your town kept local time depending on when the Sun was highest—at noon. Your town’s time might be a few minutes different from the next town to the west or east.

That changed when the railroad connected the country.

Trains must keep to schedules! The boys in the railroad scheduling department didn’t want to pull out a sextant to know when the train would pull into the station in Grand Rapids or Medicine Hat or Lake Tahoe. They needed time to be simpler. So they dreamed up the idea of time zones.

“On November 18, 1883, America’s railroads began using a standard time system involving four time zones, Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific.”

That meant everybody in one time zone all kept the same time. If you travel over to the next time zone, you change your watch or clock by one full hour. A time zone represents 15° of longitude only roughly. Mostly it’s the states’ boundaries—not the actual meridian—that determine the split. If the state is too big to conveniently fit into 15 degrees, then county lines are used to define the time zone.
https://www.mapsofworld.com/time-zone-map/usa.html

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Where the buffalo roam

The railroads in the east connected ports on the Atlantic Ocean and went as far west as Iowa. From there to Sacramento was over 1,900 miles of American MidWest—territory inhabited by the Shoshone, Arapahoe, Cheyenne and Pawnee tribes. Their centuries-old way of life would soon be ended by the railroad. The Plains Indians depended on hunting bison, the buffalo, that flourished in herds of thousands on the prairie. Buffalo need a tremendous amount of undisturbed land to graze on.

In the end it would take three railroad companies to build the transcontinental line. The 2 big ones, who would be laying the most track, had a race (of course) to see who could first reach Promontory Point in Utah. On May 10, 1869 the two tracks were joined together. The last spike to be driven was solid gold.

After that, you could board a train in New York City and travel clear to San Francisco—all by railroad. You still can—it takes 2 and a half days. https://www.rome2rio.com/s/New-York/California

https://transcontinentalrailroad101.weebly.com/transcontinental-railroad.html
https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/transcontinental-railroad
http://www.sfmuseum.net/hist4/practical.html
https://www.history.com/news/transcontinental-railroad-chinese-immigrants
https://www.deseret.com/2019/5/9/20672767/5-quotes-about-the-golden-spike-and-the-historic-completion-of-the-transcontinental-railroad
https://www.socialstudiesforkids.com/articles/ushistory/transcontinentalrailroad-builders.htm
https://livesleftbehind.wordpress.com/2018/10/11/north-americas-midwest-native-american-tribes/

UPDATE! My pal Diana (known to you readers as Ms Physics) pointed out this article about the return of the buffalo herds. What great news! https://returntonow.net/2020/06/19/bison-return-to-lakota-reservation-in-south-dakota-for-first-time-in-150-years/?fbclid=IwAR39CIg4w2RyhmtwfSrNDvn0bIbdkLO3clVsvw3tizMmojf8UkQWXJYSQoU

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Crazy Judah

In 1857, a young railroad engineer named Theodore (nickname Crazy) Judah had a big idea: to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by a railroad that ran clear across the country. By that time there were railroads up and running in both the eastern and western parts of the country. The hard part would be running hundreds of miles of new railroad across the midwest—and finding a way through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Theodore first presented his ideas in Washington, DC but couldn’t get congressmen to all agree on legislation to make his railroad project a reality. He decided instead to get backing from private business people. In Sacramento he found backers and they became the Central Pacific Associates.

The next step was to go out and survey and map the route the railroad would take. Theodore was a civil engineer, so he knew how to survey land. He found a way through the Sierra Nevada range—by the horrible Donner Pass, named for the pioneers who had become disastrously stranded there one winter. When he finished it, the map was 90 feet long!

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/tcrr-judah/
http://www.sfmuseum.net/hist4/practical.html

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Horses get a break

While Americans were traveling by packet-boat, barge and steamboat on the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, cities that weren’t connected by these water routes were suffering from lost business. They needed to get connected. The best way looked to be overland travel by railroad—the new train tracks.

In 1828 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company began laying track to connect the port city of Baltimore with the Ohio River (the Ohio feeds into the Mississippi). Believe it or not, they were going to use horses to pull the trains. Luckily for the horses, in 1830 inventor Peter Cooper convinced the B&O to try a steam locomotive. He designed a small version of a locomotive—named the Tom Thumb—to demonstrate how efficient steam power would be. He took the board of directors for a train ride with Tom Thumb pulling them in an open-air car.

Train tracks are way more easy to ride on than rough prairie. Heavy wooden ties lay on a level gravel bed and steel rails are hammered onto the ties with spikes.

http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/tomthumb.htm

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Father’s Day 2020

As I drew a steam locomotive for a recent post, for a moment I was transported back in time. When I was a boy, we were forever doing ‘projects’ for school. Not just homework, but projects—like a diorama, or a big graph with colored paper, or a diary with specimens Scotch-taped onto the pages. One particular week I had to do a project about steam locomotives. My dad is a train enthusiast—and a good drawer, so after dinner we sat at the dining room table and he drew me a diagram of how a steam locomotive works. I can see him now, explaining how the coal in the firebox heats the water in the boiler, the steam fills the cylinder which pushes the piston which turns the wheels…

I’m lucky to have a dad who took the time to explain things like that. It’s my great regret that I don’t have kids, so I draw these steam engine diagrams for you guys. Enjoy! Have a blessed Father’s Day.

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Don’t try this at home

Bessemer macho—this is me pretending to be Thomas Hart Benton. He painted guys with their shirts off fooling around with 3,000° molten steel.

You can’t haul hundreds of passengers from one point to another without really strong rails. Wood, or even cast iron, aren’t going to hold up under that weight. Luckily, there was steel. The only drawback: steel was expensive.

Steel is an alloy of two metals. Usually it’s iron and carbon (coke). As you may imagine, iron and carbon need to get really hot before they become molten and mix together. The process was fuel-intensive—you needed a whole lot of coal to heat up the metal. But in 1855 Henry Bessemer figured out that if he pumped air through molten steel, the bits of carbon burned even hotter—so much hotter that the steel turned out harder using less fuel. The Bessemer process allowed steel to be mass-produced for way less money.

Because Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is my second home-town (I lived in Sliberty for 20 years, jaggers), I must celebrate William Kelly who developed the same process as Bessemer at almost the same time (1847). A blast of air dramatically heats the molten pig iron because the impurities burn themselves up more quickly. What’s left is harder steel. The cast-off impurities are called slag.

Cheap, quality steel made Great Britain and the United States leaders in the Industrial Age.

How does coke and coal play into steel making?


https://www.britannica.com/technology/Bessemer-process

Steel Production


https://www.jsw.in/steel/how-iron-and-steel-fuelled-industrial-revolution
https://www.metalsupermarkets.com/how-steel-is-made/

Thomas Hart Benton’s epic “America Today” at the Met

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The Great Steam Locomotive Race

trainrace

It didn’t take long for smart business types to figure out a locomotive that could haul coal or slate might be useful to carry passengers on steel rails. The railway from Stockton and Darlington opened in 1825. The next year work began on the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. In October 1829, the railway’s owners staged a competition: who could build the fastest, most powerful locomotive to pull heavy loads over long distances? A race between steam locomotives! Thousands of people came out to watch, lining up along the route. Competition was fierce—but at the end of the race, Stephenson’s locomotive ‘Rocket’ was the winner, breaking the previous speed record by clocking 36 miles per hour!

This was the birth of passenger railways. The world became a place anyone—not just traders or explorers—could travel around.

These may give you some of the flavor—

Here’s a juicy slice of instructive kid lit from the Victorian Era—
https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=rfXEDwAAQBAJ&hl=en&pg=GBS.PT2

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Coal-hauling horses finally get a break

Whenever Cornish horses get together they like to sing in close harmony.

I know what you’re thinking: if Watt’s engine could turn a wheel, why not use it to propel a cart or wagon?

Excellent question! I’m glad you asked it. With a steam engine, pumps kept mines clear of water. Much safer for the miners and their animals who worked down there. Wait—animals? Well, yes. As the miners got coal loosened from inside the mine, they’d load it into carts. The carts were pulled by horses. Their wheels rested on 2 rails so the carts wouldn’t topple over as they were pulled up the rough surface of the mine floor.

Eventually, a kind-hearted soul looked at horses struggling to haul big, heavy loads of coal (or tin, or slate) and thought: there has to be a better way to haul coal. Corishman Richard Trevithick is credited for inventing the first steam locomotive. “On February 21, 1804, Trevithick’s pioneering engine hauled 10 tons of iron and 70 men nearly ten miles from Penydarren, at a speed of five miles-per-hour, winning the railway’s owner a 500 guinea bet into the bargain.”

https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Steam-trains-railways/

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