Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1509:
ROADS, CANALS, AND RAILWAYS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1509.

Today, we look at roads, canals, and railways. 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.

England's eighteenth-century industrial revolution meant that new kinds of manufactured goods had to be transported throughout the country. The makers of the revolution were largely dissident Protestant tradesmen who lived far outside London -- in Cornwall and Devon, in Manchester and Birmingham. They fomented their peculiar form of revolution away from the conventional seats of power.

And they also created a peculiar logistics problem in England. For the English never had been serious road-builders. In fifteen hundred years, they'd done little to surpass their old Roman roads. To move their new goods, these remote tradesmen finally contrived a unique canal system.

They also developed a rail system, but not in any sense we think of rail -- the steam locomotive hadn't yet been invented. As canals became the major means for hauling goods cross-country, goods had to be portaged between canals. Since their roads weren't up to heavy, wheeled vehicles, those same merchants built short horse-drawn rail links to connect their canals.

That idea had come out of the mines, where tramways were used to move coal and ore. When the steam locomotive was finally invented, it was heir to a technology that'd been honed, first in the mines, then between canals.

At a slow walk, a horse could pull almost thirty tons through a canal but only seven tons on a railway. As a canal horse sped up to a trot, water resistance became so great that it could pull almost nothing. But on a railway, it could pull just as much at a trot as at a walk. Horses could move more goods on a canal, but when speed was needed, they did far better on rails.

The Cornish builder Richard Trevithick built the first steam locomotive in 1804, and he had a demonstration line running in London by 1808. Railroad speeds increased rapidly from then on. Water resistance finally made canals quite useless in comparison with the faster-moving railroad train. The land locomotive, the early steam car, also made a try during those years. But it was easier to develop rail for such heavy vehicles than it was to create a road system.

So many factors were at play in that brief eighty-year period! And out of a gaggle of opposing means, it was rail that finally emerged. And rail held its dominance until England had cars, trucks, and a developed highway system.

Who could've guessed the outcome in 1760, when roads, rails, and canals began competing for supremacy? That's the question we face as we watch the competition among the systems around us today. Can any of us guess what form our transportation will take in another eighty years -- or our military, our computer systems, or our biotechnologies? It's a sobering fact that we can only guess.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Evans, F. T., Roads, Railways, and Canals: Technical Choices in 19th-Century Britain, Technology and Culture, Vol. 22, No. 1, January, 1981, pp. 1-34.

This is a greatly revised version of Episode 82.



From the 1832 Edinburgh Encyclopaedia

Typical early-19th-century British road construction



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H. Lienhard.