Today, a painting tells the coming of rail. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
It's a classic nightmare
scene from movies of the '30s and '40s. You're in
bed in a house near the train tracks. You hear a
locomotive -- too loud, too close. Only at the last
second, too late, the engine bursts through the
wall and you realize your house isn't just
by the track but on it. You are a
Steam rail systems were born in 1808 when Richard
Trevithik ran a small demonstration line in London.
Commercial rail service didn't begin until
the late 1820s. In 1844, with steam locomotives
still very new, the English artist Turner did a
bizarre futurist painting of a train passing over a
bridge. You've probably seen it. He called it
Rain, Steam, and Speed: The
Great Western Railway.
In the center is a train -- dark and shrouded by
rain. Off to either side, a golden landscape,
pastoral and rustic. Art historians have spilled a
sea of ink upon that extraordinary picture. It is
impressionist before the impressionists. It's a
joyous celebration of our new technological power.
It's as threatening as that locomotive about to
burst through your bedroom wall in the dead of
night. It shows the artistic world, and the
technological world, together being turned upon
their ear in the blink of an eye.
Other great artists joined Turner in seeing these
moving engines as agents of upheaval. In 1855,
American artist George Innes did an epic canvas of
a primitive locomotive spewing smoke across the
pastoral Lakawanna Valley. Tree stumps and distant
smokestacks signal a world uprooted. By 1880,
Monet, Pissaro, Manet, and Degas had all shown us
their impressions of a way of life transformed by
locomotives. In their work, the train
station emerges as a new center of modern
life. The menace fades.
But a stunning work done by the English painter
Bury in 1831 shows a truly embryonic train slicing
across the patchwork fields of England on a long,
straight, willful line of track. Clouds gather over
it. Turner's rain was just gathering.
Of all these paintings, Rain, Steam, and
Speed is the most disturbing. Turner's
indistinct and mystic train is crossing a very real
bridge. He placed it upon the Maidenhead bridge built by
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
-- probably a conscious reference to the
irrevocable change it brought with it.
When I was a boy, steam locomotives passed through
the gulch, a block behind my house. We'd go to the
tracks and stand as near as we dared when trains
came by. The terrifying blast of the machine buoyed
the heart of a ten-year-old. The danger was
palpable. These last steam locomotives, a century
after Turner, had lost none of their soul-lifting
The artists of the mid-19th century saw it. They
knew what those incredible engines were doing to
their world. Turner's engine roars out of the mists
of a twilight zone. It leaves the 18th century
behind and hurtles straight into the world of my
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
So much has been written about Turner's painting that
I could fill pages and only scratch the surface of
commentary. However, the initial trigger for this
episode was: Carter, I., Rain, Steam, and What?
Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 20, no. 2, 1997, pp.
The history of railways has also been written in
many places. Start with your Encylopaedia
For a remarkable image of the railway as a metaphor
for power and change, see Link, O. W., and Hensley,
T., Steel, Steam, and Stars, New York: Harry
N. Abrams, Inc., 1987. (Even the title appears to
play off Turner's painting.) See also Episode 556, and especially the
quote from Whitman's Leaves of Grass
included in it.