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