Rain, Steam, and Speed: Inventing Powered Motion

Introduction: Rain, Steam, and, Speed

Perhaps it's my Minnesota childhood, but each autumn my mind moves off into the conflicting themes of the cold woods and the warm hearth -- of huddling indoors and being free to move where the wind will take me. This year, a particular image overlays those musings. It is William Turner's painting, Rain, Steam, and Speed, The Great Western Railway. The painting is an abstract vision of a locomotive hurtling across a bridge in a storm.

Turner Train

We squint at it through the slanting rain. The engine appears to be a machine before its time, a vision of things to come -- speed yet unattained. The train in the center is dark and rain-shrouded. On either side is a golden landscape -- pastoral, sunlit, and rustic. The picture is impressionist before the impressionists. It is a joyous celebration of new technological power. But racing along with it is a threat of disruption. We have, at last, contrived to extract from the cold winter storm... warmth, steam, as well as enormous power and speed. Turner was on to something.

So let us play with his idea. But, before we start, be aware that you can play this CD in your computer and be led to the full text, along with images, links, and sources. Or you can play it in your car radio while your heater keeps the cold away -- while the engine speeds you from place to place.

The story of that engine begins long before your car -- long before the railway locomotive. As a prelude, we begin high on a mountain crest, 5300 years ago.

Turner Painting
Rain, Steam, and Speed, The Great Western Railway, by J. M. W. Turner used by permission of The National Gallery of Art, London
  1. This CD is based upon material drawn from a forthcoming book: J. H. Lienhard, How Invention Begins: And How it Finds Its Final Form. (Oxford University Press, 2006): See especially, Chapters 1 and 4-8.
©2005 John H. Lienhard.