All Aboard!

Good morning, it’s February 28, 2020. On this date in 1827, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad became the first railway chartered in the United States. At a time when Baltimore was the nation’s second-largest city, its backers hoped to compete with New York merchants for western trade at a time when “the West” meant the Ohio Valley.

Cross-section of the original Erie CanalOnly two years before, New York’s mercantilists experienced a long-awaited boon in facilitating the movement of goods westward with the completion of the Erie Canal. Although it was an engineering marvel — Erie was the second-longest canal in the world — it also was an ancient technology. The B&O railroad employed a newer technology, the steam-powered locomotive.

Out of the Maryland railroad investors’ vision grew an industry that settled a continent.

Rail travel can seem retro these days, even if you splurge for a ticket on Amtrak’s Acela train. But at its inception, and for nearly a century afterward, the railroad was perhaps the most consequential 19th century technological success story.

Put in your water, shovel in your coal,
Put cha head out the window and watch the drivers roll

I’ll run her ’til she leaves the rail
For I’m eight hours late with the western mail.

That song, “Casey Jones,” was included by the Library of Congress on an album called “California Gold: Northern California Folk Music From the Thirties.” But there was a lot more than mail being carried on those trains. As I’ve written about previously in this space, the most instrumental cargo wasn’t mail or even wheat, iron ore, or gold. It was people.

The patent for a steam engine was granted in 1815, a year after a British engineer built a steam locomotive that hauled eight railroad cars up a grade at 4 miles per hour. No infrastructure yet existed to support the invention, so more than a decade later the United States still had only 23 miles of tracks.

But a couple of years later, America had 46 miles of track, and a couple of years after that, 92 miles — and so on. In one decade the miles of rail lines doubled nearly seven times, so that by 1840 the country boasted 2,800 miles of track. As author Joel Garreau noted in “Radical Evolution,” between 1840 and 1910 the amount of railroad track doubled more than 14 times.

It would be hard to overstate the effect this had on the country.

“The railroads changed whatever they touched,” wrote Garreau, a journalist, demographer, futurist, and all-around smart person. “It changed cities; it changed families; it changed businesses; it changed this country. A struggling, backward, rural civilization mostly hugging the East Coast was converted into a continent-spanning, world-challenging, urban behemoth.”

Ultimately, the doublings of the building of new tracks stopped. Railroads were supplemented by other technologies, including automobiles, tractor trailers, and airplanes.

But the law of technological doublings, known variously as Moore’s law or The Curve, continues with the latest frontier being not 30-ton “iron horses” but tiny computing and communications gizmos we hold in your hands — and whatever device you are using to read these words.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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