Monday, July 5, 2010

I've Been Working on the Railroad ...

It's a bit of failing on my part that I've yet to talk about locomotives in all my posts about Steampunk science and technology. A very, very strong case could be made that efficient steam locomotives are what really drove the Industrial Revolution to the heights it reached -- without the speedy transit a locomotive afforded, factories are limited to the banks of rivers with access to barges that would take their product downriver. This isn't strictly a problem for nations that possess a lot of waterways (England, the northeast United States, Japan, etc.), but it does mean that the real estate where they can place new industries is severely limited.

This is why locomotives became so important. Puffing steam engines would eventually crisscross the countryside carrying product from the rural factories to the commercial centers and off to the docks for international distribution. Having a rail network helped the Union defeat the Confederacy in the American Civil War, it assisted the British in their conquest of India, and made all sorts of things possible for all nations.

Prior to the 1800s, all the steam engines in existence worked on low-pressure or atmospheric steam. This was perfectly all right for the Newcomen engines in their jobs as water-pumpers for mines, but to transport a heavy load over any significant distance first required the development of high-pressure steam engines in order to work properly. The first successful person to do this was the British inventor Richard Trevithick, who ran his "puffer," as it was then called, on the tramway of the Penydarren ironworks in South Wales on February 21, 1804.

As you can see in the image I've included, the puffer was a very rudimentary steam locomotive. It worked to pull the line of cars along the tramway at Penydarren, but beyond proof-of-concept, the Trevithick locomotive would have to be improved before it really made an impact on transportation in England.

That impact came in 1825, when George Stephenson and his partners opened the Stockton and Darlington Railway for business in northeast England. To say the world would never be the same is an understatement.

NEXT WEEK: George Stephenson and the Rocket


Harry Markov said...

I have watched a documentary on the first steam engines and there was a segment on the puffer. I even saw it in action. Impressive. It's amazing what a simple design can achieve, eh?

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Trains! Engines! Sigh.

Yeah, I'm a bit partial to locomotion in all its forms, but there's a reason why trains continue to fascinate people (mostly boys and men, but whatevs) today. The romance of conquering the West; the sheer power of the muscular chug-chug-chug of a steam engine; the Bullet train riding on maglev. OK, that last one wasn't steampunk - but still awesome.