Daily Archives: 9 May 2011

Railroads and Other Baffling Innovations

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), pp. 253-254:

Why do our clothes not fit so well? It results from a chain of circumstances the origins of which are obscure to most and the direction of which was partially accidental. Early in the nineteenth century, inventors came up with an automated loom, and businesspeople put these to work in England and in such American industrial cities as Lowell, Massachusetts, turning out cheap cotton cloth. This, along with the application of the cotton gin to cotton production, revitalized slavery as well as creating an incentive for inexpensive ready-made and therefore not specifically tailored clothing.

Such long-range deep impacts of technological and business developments have long been studied. Lynn White, in Medieval Technology and Social Change, documented the enormous impact of clocks, heavy harness and stirrups on population growth, shock warfare, and the age of exploration. Siegfried Giedion wrote in his Mechanization Takes Command of what he called “anonymous history.” Who can estimate the impact of the invention of the toilet, or the assembly line in food production, or household machinery on the status of women? Langdon Winner observed “Developments in the technical sphere continually outpace the capacity of individuals and social systems to adapt. As the rate of technological innovation quickens, it becomes increasingly important and increasingly difficult to predict the range of effects that a given innovation will have.”

A recent touring art exhibit called “The Railway: Art in the Age of Steam” reaffirmed the impact of that technology on perceptions of life and landscape. “The application of steam power to motion,” the catalog noted, “came as a startling turn of events.” Some found it wondrous, but “for others it heralded a frightening, almost demonic energy.” There was something supernatural about it, even extraterrestrial. It made middle-class people “physically and psychologically susceptible to impersonal and potentially lethal industrial machines.”…

Think of the social and psychological changes wrought by the telegraph, electricity, the phonograph, the automobile, the airplane, radio, television, the computer, the Internet, the long-playing record, video games, the cell phone, fast food, the shopping mall, and the iPod. And think of how “baffled,” in many ways, we are by them and how they should fit in with the rest of our existence. These devices have become ubiquitous parts of modern life. An age when they did not exist is nearly unimaginable to many, while an age where they do exist is unendurable to others.

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Filed under democracy, industry, science, slavery

Railroad Depot Architecture, 1830–1860

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), p. 92:

Railroad depots came to dominate urban architecture, and their size brought much comment. The Boston & Maine depot in Boston, constructed in 1846, was 200 feet long and 80 feet wide. It had Corinthian columns, and on its upper story was the largest meeting hall in the city. Behind it was a freight depot 500 feet long and 50 feet wide. The Union depot at Troy, New York constructed in 1853, was 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. The distance from the top of the roof arch to the floor was 65 feet. The roof was made entirely of iron supported by twenty trusses.

Former B&O Camden Station

Former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Camden Station, built in 1856, now the Babe Ruth/Sports Legends Museum next to Camden Yards

Time only increased the impressiveness of these structures. A reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune visited the new buildings constructed by the Illinois Central Railroad along the lakeshore in 1854. The passenger depot at the foot of Water Street was all of stone. It was 500 feet long, 166 feet wide and 60 feet high to the top of its towers. Its windows were 16 feet high. The walls looked like they would “remain in all their strength when the final ‘wreck of matter and the crash of worlds’ shall come. The turntable there would hold eighteen locomotives.

The depots were the entry to a new world of travel, every aspect of which became a subject for travelogue comments. John Daggett riding the B&O in 1834, thought the beginning of his rail journey was its highlight:

One of the happiest effects of traveling on railroads is the freedom it gives you from the impertinence and impositions of porters, cartmen, et omne id genus, who infest common steamboat landings. A long and solitary row of carriages was standing on the shore awaiting our arrival; not a shout was heard, scarcely any thing was seen to move except the locomotive, and the arms of the man who caught the rope from our boat. The passengers were filed off along a planked walk to the carriages through one gangway, while their luggage, which had already been stowed safely away, was rolled on shore by another, in two light wagons; and almost without speaking a word, the seats were occupied, the wagons attached behind, the half-locomotive began to snort, and the whole retinue was on the way with as little ado and as little loss of time as I have been guilty of in telling the story.

Others, however, were not so impressed with the stressful experience of boarding a train. A Frenchman, Michel Chevalier, thought that the pandemonium at the railroad station reflected the nervousness and disorder of American society itself. The American, he wrote, was “devoured with a passion for locomotion” and could not stay still.

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Filed under industry, travel, U.S.