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The Cultural A Priori: Some Enabling Conditions


(1) The Railroad Journey: Traveling in and as a Projectile (or: Bullet Trains of Yesteryear)


Arguably the single most important--and indeed the overarching--"energy" fostering the development of mobile steam engines was the ideology of capitalism. Ultimately, all the other enabling conditions listed below (and there are more) are also related to capital and industrialization.


(2) The Deforestation of Europe


[In the preindustrial era] wood affected all areas of cultural existence, being the prerequisite for the prosperity of all branches of economic life: so general was its use in the production of material goods that the characteristics of culture before the 18th century were decidedly wooden, and thus that culture retained an 'organic' quality in its material and sensual aspect. – Werner Sombart, Der Moderne Kapitalismus (1902)

There are no first and second class carriages as with us; but there is a gentleman's car and a ladies' car: the main distinction between which is that in the first, everybody smokes; and in the second, nobody does. As a black man never travels with a white one, there is also a negro car; which is a great blundering clumsy chest, such as Gulliver put to sea in, from the kingdom of Brobdingnag. There is a great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window, a locomotive engine, a shriek, and a bell. – Charles Dickens, American Notes (1842)


(3) Evolution of Modern Steam Power


"locomotivity" – Annual Register 1861


"A Few Small In- conveniences. There's Nothing Perfect"
                              – Robert Seymour, Plate 2 of Locomotion


(4) Corn Versus Coal, or Food Versus Fuel


he landed capitalists of Britain. . . have by the taxes on corn and provisions more than doubled the price of animal labour, whether of man or horses. To avoid the effects of these taxes the monied capitalists of Britain have been for years devoting their capital to the promotion of those inventions by which taxed animal power may be dispensed with; and their endeavours have been crowned with eminent success.
                                                                                     – Thomas Grahame, A Treatise on Internal Intercourse and Communication in Civilised States (1834)


(5) Industrial Need for Predictability


Pro-Railroad: Animal unreliability and unpredictability

The dangers to which the present coach system is obnoxious (such as the untractableness of horses, the imprudence of drivers, cruelty to animals, the ruggedness of roads, etc.), would not be encountered on the rail-way, where the solid basis and construction render it impossible for any vehicle to be upset or driven out of its course; and as the rail-way must also be perfectly level and smooth, no danger could be apprehended from the increased speed, for mechanic power is uniform and regular, whilst horse-power, as we all very well know, is quite the reverse. – Thomas Gray, Observations on a General Iron Rail-Way (1820)


– George Cruikshank, The Horses 'Going to the Dogs' (1829)


Contra-Railroad: Loss of authentic experience and sensory perception

Seated in the old mail-coach, we needed no evidence out of ourselves to indicate the velocity . . . . The vital experience of the glad animal sensibilities made doubts impossible on the question of our speed; we heard our speed, we saw it, we felt it as a thrilling; and this speed was not the product of blind insensate agencies, that had no sympathy to give, but was incarnated in the fiery eyeballs of the noblest among brutes, in his dilated nostril, spasmodic muscles, and thunder-beating hoofs.
                                                                                                                                                                                         – Thomas de Quincey, Collected Writings


(6) Some Technological Preconditions (and concurrent developments)


(a) Steam Technology

  • Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729): development of stationary steam engines to power the pumps removing water from mines.
  • James Watt (1736-1829): design of efficient an steam engine adaptable to locomotion. Eventually, in partnership with Matthew Boulton, Watt designed a double acting piston (steam pushed as well as pulled the piston), a method of changing the piston action to rotary action suitable for driving flywheels, etc., and devising a governor to control the speed of the engine => first commercial successful railway in 1825 on the Stockton and Darlington, and by 1830 on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway

(b) Steam theory, or, the Science of Heat

  • Steam as the energy reservoir of the capitalist motor
    • Steam is an ideal material for an engine in several ways: water is (relatively) plentiful, a gram of water occupies approximately one cubic centimeter in volume, but when converted to steam it occupies at least 1670 cubic centimeters of volume. The expansion is obviously large, and thus will do a great amount of work.

  • The formulation of theories of thermal energy/thermodynamics
    • James Joule (1818-1889) - helping to develop an understanding of the nature of thermal energy
    • Lazare and Sadi Carnot (1796-1832) - theories of thermal engines
    • William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, (1824-1907) - advancements in the understanding of heat and electricity among other fields. There were numerous contributors. Interestingly, in a reversal of (modern day) information flow, the basic science explaining steam technology would follow the invention of the technology, not the other way round.

(c) Rail production and the Demiurgy of Metallurgy

  • Sir Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) developed the Bessemer process for making steel in 1856 in England. It was the first inexpensive process of making quality steel and was quickly applied to making superior quality rail for railroads, thus allowing heavier locomotives and cars to operate on the rails.
  • The Bessemer process was not appropriate for phosphorous containing iron and was unsuitable for iron mined on the Continent of Europe, so the process was supplanted by the Open Hearth Process developed by Karl Wilhem Siemens and Pierre and Emil Martin in the 1860s. This process allowed the slag which carried the impurities that the Bessemer process couldn't eliminate to float on the top and be removed from the steel.
  • With solid steel rails and largely reliable times tables---and very much in contrast to canals---the railroads could, arguably, be seen as the first all weather transportation system.

(d) Communications Technology  -  Telegraphy and the Morse code

  • Running more than one train on a single track increases the probability of collisions. The invention of the telegraph in 1837 by Cooke and Wheatstone, and the invention of the Morse code in the same year allowed for rapid communication over wires. Station agents could signal to other stations the locations of trains, thus superseding paper orders and simpler and less reliable methods of signaling such as the Ball signal (up for clear and down for stop).

Highball Signal

Telegraph Key


His manner cleared, like my own. He replied to my remarks with readiness, and in well-chosen words. Had he much to do there? Yes; that was to say, he had enough responsibility to bear; but exactness and watchfulness were what was required of him, and of actual work-- manual labour--he had next to none. To change that signal, to trim those lights, and to turn this iron handle now and then, was all he had to do under that head. Regarding those many long and lonely hours of which I seemed to make so much, he could only say that the routine of his life had shaped itself into that form, and he had grown used to it. He had taught himself a language down here,--if only to know it by sight, and to have formed his own crude ideas of its pronunciation, could be called learning it. . . . –                                                                                                                                                                                                         - Charles Dickens, "The Signal-Man"



(e) Coupling and Braking Innovations

Like improved communications, coupling and braking technologies were overwhelming safety concerns for railroads in the 19th century, but were adopted only reluctantly for reasons of cost: they did not represent an immediate way to increase profits.

  • The Link and Pin Coupler. Initially cars were connected by a short chain, which was eventually replaced by a single link placed into a receiver at the end of the car and secured with a vertical pin. For obvious reasons, this coupling technology was outlawed, though not until 1900---after thousands of railroad workers had lost their lives.
  • The Automatic Knuckle Coupler. Major Eli H. Janney, a Confederate veteran of the civil war invented the automatic knuckle coupler. This semi-automatic device locked upon the cars closing together without the rail worker getting between the cars. Furthermore, a lever at the corner of the car would release the coupler knuckle making uncoupling also safer. For reasons of cost, this safety improvement was not widely accepted, and it took federal action by the newly formed Interstate Commerce Commission to outlaw the link and pin coupler by 1 January 1900.
  • The Air Brake Design. While even early trains had brakes on every car, these brakes were not synchronized. . . . Beginning in 1868, George Westinghouse developed a first air brake device, which was significantly improved once the brake design was powered by a system storing and using compressed air from a reservoir (triple valve).

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Michael Wutz, Brady Presidential Distinguished Professor
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